The Ultimate Guide for Indie Authors in 2022
From planning to publishing, we outline everything an indie author needs to know in 2022.
Publishing a book has never been easier than it is today. There are many different services and platforms to help support authors on their publishing journey -- tools that help with everything from editing your book to designing its cover to marketing it once it's out.
Because of the wide availability of tools, more and more authors are striking out on their own and forging their own careers as "indie authors". But that begs the question: what exactly is an indie author -- and how do you decide if the path of an indie author is right for you?
I’ve written this guide to help answer those questions and give you all the information you need to get started as an indie author.
What is an indie author?
First off: I’ve got bad news. Nobody actually knows what an indie author is. Though the phrase is in frequent use across the publishing world, there is no single agreed-upon definition.
For example, the Alliance of Independent Authors defines an indie author as an author who retains their status as the creative director of their book and has the final say in all of its associated decisions from design to marketing to their readership. They recognize a key feature of indie authorship as openness to collaborate with other industry professionals without compromising on your rights as a creative. But they say in order to qualify as an “indie author,” you have to have at least one self-published book.
Other experts in the industry see it very differently and consider self-published authors completely separate from indie authors. “Calling everyone authors who puts words on a document and submits them to the public devalues the word so much, it makes it meaningless,” writes Michael Kozlowski of Good E-Reader. “If you [only] put words on a document, you are certainly not an author.” Kozlowski says, to be considered an author, you need to have a publishing contract or make royalties from your work.
But when it comes down to it, here’s the truth about indie authors:
Indie authors define themselves
That’s right. The beauty of being an indie author is you get to decide what it means, not anyone else.
Many authors identify themselves as independent if they’re the only ones working on their books. This means that they are writing, editing, formatting, designing, publishing, and marketing their books completely on their own, and control every aspect of the process. While this offers the most creative control, it’s also the most time-consuming way to get your work out there.
When it’s time to publish, indie authors often choose between publishing wide or publishing exclusively through Amazon:
Wide Publishing: When an author publishes wide, they make their book available through as many online and brick-and-mortar bookstores as they want, including online booksellers like Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple Books. Book aggregators like IngramSpark and Draft2Digital make this process easier by helping authors publish to many booksellers at once. Authors who publish wide can also make their books available directly to readers via their own branded website through tools like Wordpress, BookFunnel, and Laterpress.
Exclusive Publishing: An author can enroll their book in Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select. KDP Select requires ebooks to be exclusive to Amazon. In exchange, books in the program are paid for page reads through Amazon’s subscription reading service Kindle Unlimited. Authors enrolling in the program are banking on Amazon’s size and reach to make it easier to find an audience, with the allure of reading a book for “free” leading some readers to take a chance on a book they might not choose to buy outright.
Self-publishing wide or through KDP Select can be lucrative; the royalty rates are significantly higher, as there’s no publisher to pay, and you retain creative control of your book. Unfortunately, it has the potential to be far more expensive upfront for the author – you have to be your own marketing department and distribution manager, after all – taking on costs that would be handled for you when working with a publishing company.
The two tactics above aren’t the only avenues to being an indie author. Other authors define being an indie author by their relationship to a small, independent publishing house or distributor. They may have an exclusive contract, or simply distribute their work through that house for more reach in terms of bookstore and bookseller placement, or getting the book into a public library.
Still others are happy to work collaboratively with editors, designers, marketing teams, audiobook voice actors, and other professionals to get their books in front of their readership. There are many platforms that cater to this breed of indie author by offering assisted self-publishing; you retain the creative rights to your work while benefiting from their in-house services, technologies, and connections.
In a nutshell: don’t sweat the terminology. Being an indie author is a mindset, not a definition.
Beware vanity presses
Having talked about self-publishing and working with small publishing houses, it’s now time to address a major problem faced by indie authors: the vanity press.
Vanity presses are defined by the Alliance of Independent Authors as “a publishing service that engages in misleading or, in the worst cases, outright deceptive practices, with the intention not of bringing books to readers but of extracting as much money as possible from the authors.” These “publishing houses” are scams - they take an author’s money and, in the worst cases, their creative rights, without offering any return on the investment.
Here are some signs to watch out for with vanity presses.
- They will make unfounded and unrealistic promises about the success of your book. They may promise major mainstream media coverage or an outrageous “average” sales number without having any verifiable testimonials.
- They will (often, but not always) be indiscriminate about the works they publish, taking in anything and everything if you’re willing to pay.
- They may ask for a “reading fee” when you submit to them.
- They will often include book-buying clauses in their contracts; the author will be required to purchase a certain number of finished books from them after which they will take the full brunt of distribution.
- Their prices are extremely inflated. What may cost an author $35 to do themselves will be marketed at $3,500 through the press.
- They will ask for a large cut of the royalties after asking you to pay massive production costs upfront.
If you notice any of these signs while researching a publisher, steer clear of them and look somewhere else. Vanity presses are predatory and dangerous; do your best to avoid them at all costs. You can check the SFWA vanity publisher database or Beall’s List for up-to-date information about known predatory presses.
What’s right for you? Life as a traditional vs indie author
If you’re starting out as an author writing your first book, you’re probably facing the dilemma of how to get it published. Both traditional and indie authors enjoy various perks, but will face unique challenges to get to those perks. Here’s how to tell which path is right for you.
Traditional publishing and its pitfalls
Many first-time authors dream of a traditionally published book. Getting a Big Five deal with a massive advance, a huge book tour across the country and even internationally, special editions you spend hours signing and giving to adoring fans - it’s a fantasy that sounds incredibly appealing.
Unfortunately, it’s about as far from the truth as you can get. A traditional book contract has many pitfalls that can make an author reconsider quickly.
Traditional publishing is extremely exclusive. Authors pitch the same project to house after house and agent after agent and can spend years getting rejections. It’s not that publishers don’t like their work; often, it’s because the publishing house doesn’t see sales potential in the manuscript. Publishers take on a massive risk with every project, and if they don’t think they can turn a profit on it, they won’t take the chance.
Frustratingly, the query may have been sent in the wrong format, causing it to be immediately discarded. Publishers are extremely busy, and may review hundreds of submissions a week; they don’t have time to sort through improper formatting or books that don’t suit their wishlists. Small errors can lead to months of wasted time and effort.
If and when you do get a contract, the actual publishing process is slow. Working with an entire team of editors, proofreaders, designers, and marketers can mean hold ups in communication and endless revisions that can put a book through the grinder for years.
When it’s finally ready to publish, much of the book marketing still falls on the author to do. Your publicist can book you on shows, podcasts, tours, and a hundred other projects, but you have to be able to get to them all and represent yourself well.
Finally, authors do not retain control of their stories, or the publishing rights, in traditional publishing. Major story edits may be required by the publishing house before they’ll continue production, and even the title of the book could be changed for market appeal. The publishing house decides where the book will be sold, the formats available, and the price. They may also acquire rights to the series / intellectual property – limiting an author’s options on what they can do with their fictional universe if their relationship with the publishing company ends.
Still, traditional publishing comes with a significant amount of industry validation and a well-deserved sense of pride. Such an arduous project results in a well-formatted, beautiful, widely-available work that you can proudly pick up at any major retailer. It also means that the major onus of publishing falls to a team of reliable professionals rather than into the author’s lap, which can free up their time to focus on what they do best - crafting the story.
If you aren’t as stringent about complete creative control, or you are determined to chase a Big Five contract for the achievement, then traditional publishing can be as rewarding as it is challenging.
Self-publishing or small publishing?
Going the non-traditional route, as we have said, results in a much higher level of control over your book’s production, which can be incredibly appealing.
If you want to retain your control, but would still like the support and resources offered by a team, then you may choose to work with a small publisher. Small publishers, like traditional publishers, are selective about the work they take on; this means that you will still spend a significant amount of time querying before the publishing process even begins.
Once it does, though, you’ll usually move much quicker than you would with a large publishing house. Small publishers have far fewer clients to work with and therefore can offer much more time and attention to your project.
They also tend to be more personal in their approach, which means that, while you do have to cede control over certain aspects of the process - including cover design and formatting - to the publishing house, working with them can allow you to build a relationship with not just your agent or publicist, but with the entire production team.
Small presses don’t have the same reach as the Big Five do, so you’re unlikely to have the same level of connection and publicity. That being said, they still have access to and relationships with physical retail locations, and the authority to get you into more interviews and tours than you may be able to find on your own.
For the maximum amount of control over your book, from start to finish, you can opt to self-publish completely alone. Using a service like KDP or Ingram Spark can get your work in front of an audience nearly as soon as you finish drafting it, and if you already have experience with or confidence in design and formatting, you won’t have to pay very much at all.
If you do need help, contracting a freelance designer and formatter might be worth the investment. Remember, however, that you’ll get the work you pay for, so set a reasonable budget based on the averages of the field rather than going for the cheapest available work.
You will, however, have to have a detailed and actionable marketing plan in place before publishing. You can use your social media channels and industry connections to market your book during presale and upon launch. Some industry influencers, such as bloggers and podcast runners, will work with self-published authors, so try researching in your niche and reaching out. The worst they can say is no.
The Do’s and Don'ts of success as an indie author
If you choose to become an indie author, there are a few things you can do to give yourself the best possible chance of success and avoid the major issues that come up when handling your publishing journey.
We’ve compiled a list of the do’s and don’ts of success as an indie author, to give you a starting point. Here are our best tips.
DO value quality over quantity
There is a misconception among new-to-the-field authors, and those transitioning from short-form writing to long-form, that the more books you put out in quick succession, the better your return on investment will be. While this might work for copywriters producing blog and website content (where relevance is key in many regards), it’s not a good strategy for authors.
Books are a significant investment for readers. Not only are they parting with money - sometimes $20 or more for hardbacks - they’re also parting with a significant amount of time. Books take hours, even days, to read. A reader isn’t often going to sit through a work that is poorly formatted, badly edited, or riddled with grammatical errors.
Instead, focus on creating a quality product. Make sure that your story is as well-composed and clean as possible. Invest in the front and back matter of your book. Be sure that you have:
- A clean-looking title page
- An accurate copyright page with edition numbers and an ISBN
- A heartfelt dedication
- An easy-to-follow table of contents
- An About the Author section with an appealing bio, and information about your website or social media accounts.
- If working with nonfiction, a well-organized and authoritative bibliography
You might also choose to include an Also By section to show off your other work, a section on the publisher, a glossary of terms, notes, a forward or introduction, or anything else that will make your book feel complete.
When the content is sorted, be sure that your book looks as good as its story reads. Invest in design for the cover, the text itself, and the graphics you’ll use to promote it.
DON’T forget that writing is a business
Writing is an art and takes a certain amount of dedication, talent, and craft to make it appealing. That doesn’t mean that you can treat writing like a hobby if you want to sell your book, unfortunately.
If you’re serious about becoming a working author, then you need to treat your book as a business. Create a business plan, including a production schedule, itemized budget, and a marketing plan, to guide you through the process.
Research your niche to get a full picture of exactly what it is that you’ll need to do to be successful. Take notes on what other authors are doing to promote their work, and try out some of the ideas that you are most interested in, such as offering freebies with preorders or bundling projects together.
Once your book is out there, don’t consider the work done. Most successful authors keep track of the key analytics associated with their book: sales numbers, where the books are selling the best, and how well marketing strategies worked. Adjust your plan accordingly and don’t be afraid to try something new to get your business up and running.
DO keep your readers as your priority
You can write the best book in the world and it won’t mean a thing if you haven’t got any readers. In the publishing industry, the reader is king, which is why it’s so incredibly important for indie authors to prioritize connecting with their readers.
There are many possible methods for connecting with readers. Social media is a good way to interact with your readers on a regular basis - you can offer birthday wishes, get excited about certain scenes together, and appreciate fan works created by your community. Having active social media makes you more accessible to your audience and shows them more of you as a person, which can open up the door for a more loyal customer base.
You should also prioritize building a personal email list. You could offer exclusive sneak-peeks of upcoming work, discounts and special offers on your published work, or contests and giveaways open only to your subscribers, all of which will incentivize them to follow you and keep up with your work.
All of this is to say, your readers should be excited to share your work not just because it’s good, but also because it’s from you. If you connect with your readers on a personal level, they’ll be more likely to promote you and your work to the people they know, which gives you more marketing power for future projects.
DON’T feel like you have to compete with other authors
It’s true that the publishing industry is competitive, especially when it comes to indie publishing. New books are published all the time at a rapidly accelerating rate; according to some calculations, there are more than 7,500 new books uploaded to the Kindle store every day. This means that your book will need to stand out quite a bit to catch anyone’s attention.
What isn’t true (at least, not wholly true) is that other authors are your main competition. Some indie authors tend to make the honest mistake of thinking that, because they are selling books to the same audience, readers are going to have to choose one author over another, meaning that authors must compete for their attention.
The truth is, most readers will happily pick up many books in their areas of interest. If they enjoy something, they will want to engage with it as much as possible. An analogy has been made that creative work is similar to creating a cake for public consumption. The baker may think that another cake is more prettily decorated or well constructed; a consumer is more likely to be excited that there is more cake to go around.
Considering other authors as your peers and your allies opens up a wealth of opportunities. You can collaborate with them in writing groups to sharpen your skills and produce a more polished piece. You can promote each other’s work across audiences and platforms to increase exposure. You can even refer to other authors’ works when pitching your own book to give publishers and agents an idea of who your book might appeal to and how it reads.
Working cooperatively with other authors can make both of your lives easier, and can ensure that there’s plenty of that prose cake to go around.
Seventeen tools for indie authors
On top of understanding industry do’s and don’ts, as with any other job, in order to do well, an indie author must have access to the right tools. We’ve compiled a list of the most helpful resources an indie author can have at their disposal. Some of these tools are free to use so your budget doesn’t suffer, while some are worth an investment.
Here are 17 useful tools for indie authors.
Here are some tools to help you plan your next project.
- Evernote is an organizational tool that allows you to build notebooks in which you can plan your projects. Each notebook has convenient subsections and multimedia compatibility, which can make it a fantastic tool for building character and location references. There is a free basic plan which works across two devices and offers you 60 MB of storage, as well as personal and professional plans ($7.99 and $9.99 per month, respectively) which allow you to have access to more storage and tools.
- World Anvil is a worldbuilding tool that can be incredibly useful when planning a fantasy novel or other self-contained-world project. The site allows you to build interactive maps complete with location descriptions, topography, roadmaps, and historical notes. It also allows you to build a timeline of your world’s development and character profiles for key figures, along with many other features. The best part is that the whole project is indexable and easy to search. They offer free basic accounts as well as 12-month pricing plans starting at $50.
- To Doist is a list-making app that offers you the ability to create, prioritize, and get reminders for important tasks that you may otherwise forget. The app lets you sort tasks into different categories for convenient processing and planning. It also allows for collaborative efforts, which can be useful if you’re working with coauthors or an editing team, and lets you organize tasks into daily and weekly overviews. They have a free basic plan and a $4 per month premium plan.
While basic processors like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and LibreOffice can be fantastic for storing your work, if you need more in terms of writing tools, here are some of your best options.
- Scrivener is the go-to recommendation for authors when it comes to word processing power. Scrivener allows you to break your project down into pieces as big or small as you like, which can be rearranged easily by dragging and dropping them into place. You can also store your research notes directly in the project for easy access and, once you’ve completed your manuscript, you can export it in the proper format directly. A perpetual license for Scrivener is $49.
- Reedsy Book Editor is an in-browser writing tool with a simple interface that allows you to break your project into chapters and parts for easy access. It formats your book automatically so that you can see how the finished product will look as you write, and has a wide variety of editing tools, including access to professional editors if you’d like to hire one to help (with tracked changes). It allows collaboration and exporting to either PDF or ePub file formats. This is a free tool.
- Ommwriter is a tool specifically designed to reduce distractions and allow you to get into the zone so that you can hit your writing goals more easily. It offers a variety of soft, neutrally-colored backgrounds and relaxing background sounds (including keyboard noises). The goal of the site is to promote “an ideal setting for concentration” by providing a pleasant, inspiring platform. The web version is free to use, but you can also buy the full program. The starting price is $8.18, though they allow you to adjust your payment based on how much you believe the tool is worth.
Editing and Proofreading Tools
Once you’ve got a draft, you need a way to edit it. Here are some of the best editing and proofreading tools.
- Grammarly is a plugin editor that works in your browser or word processing program to detect spelling and grammar errors as you write. The program allows you to easily spot and replace problem words and sentences with their automated suggestions. Unfortunately, the site’s algorithm isn’t perfect, and will occasionally flag correct sentences with incorrect grammar suggestions. Still, it’s a good tool for first-pass grammar editing. The app has a free version as well as a premium version that costs $12 per month for an annual plan.
- ProWritingAid is a plugin that is similar to Grammarly but more specifically geared toward authors. It works with Scrivener, which can save conversion times. It checks for grammar, spelling, style, sentence variety, voice, and readability, among other features. The program has a free plugin for several browsers. You can also buy the full version for $20 per month.
- Hemingway is an app that focuses on allowing you to adjust your voice and readability for clarity by relying on the values of Ernest Hemingway, who believed in limiting the passive voice and using no more words than were strictly necessary. The app highlights sentences and words based on their complexity, allowing you to break down long, complicated sentences into more easily understood chunks. It also points out instances of passive voice so that you can correct them. It also shows you a live word count and readability level. The app is free to use.
Design and Formatting Tools
After revision comes design and formatting. Here are the best tools you can use to improve your book’s appearance.
- Canva is a website that allows you to work from templates to create a fully customized book cover, which you can then download and use with your book on whichever platform you like. The site offers graphic design tools in the form of text and photo editing, layering, and stock photo libraries, among other tools. You can download your file as a PNG, JPG, or PDF, depending on your needs. The site offers a free account with premium features available for as little as $9.99 per month.
- DIY Book Covers is a site built specifically for indie authors looking to create covers on their own. They offer templates and resources such as video tutorials and ebooks to help you create your own professional-looking cover. They also offer 3-d mockups for designs so you can see how it looks before finalizing it and templates that work with Microsoft Word and Photoshop. It costs $47.
- Vellum is a formatting software that allows you to customize your ebook for the intended host platform. They have options to customize for paperback or hardback, trim size, large print format, full-bleed pages, and several different text styles. It costs $249.99 for the full suite for ebooks and paperback, or $199.99 for ebooks only. It is only available for Mac.
When you’ve finally gotten your book fully ready for publication, here are some tools to help you market it as effectively as possible.
- Goodreads is a social network all about books. Users can keep digital bookshelves showing everything that they have read, and discover new books they might be interested in based on recommendations from the site, or other users. Authors can use the platform to run giveaways, polls, answer fan questions, and more.
- Publisher Rocket offers you tools to compare and research keywords for categorization on Amazon. This can help you make sure your book gets in front of the correct audience and gets as much exposure as possible. It also offers analytics for competition, showing you the top-performing books in your prospective category so you can see how your book compares, as well as effective targeting tools for Amazon ads. The cost of the program is a one-time payment of $97.
- BookFunnel is an all-in-one marketing service program for authors specifically looking to grow their audiences. The tool allows you to create reader magnets, deliver ARCs securely, sell directly to your readers through your email list and in-person using printable download codes, among many other useful options. Their plans start at $20 per year for beginner authors and go up to $250 per year for additional features.
- Kirkus Indie offers a way for self-published authors to garner legitimate reviews quickly by offering ARCs of your book to their dedicated base of reviewers. You can publish the reviews on their website or download them to use on your personal site or in the description of your book on various retailer websites. The program starts at $425 for 7-9 weeks and goes up to $575 for longer reviews. You can also choose to expedite your review for an additional charge.
- Laterpress - of course we’re going to mention ourselves! The Laterpress platform allows authors to sell internet hosted versions of their books directly to their fans – no downloads or apps required! Readers can purchase entire books, bundles of episodes (if you’re releasing serial fiction), or an annual subscription for instant access to everything you publish. There is no cost to authors - Laterpress only makes money if you do. Authors have total control over how much they wish to charge, and how much of a free preview they may wish to provide. More features for community / fan interaction coming soon! While conventional retails take 30% or more of every sale, Laterpress’s cut is 5% - meaning a lot more money in your pocket!
Indie publishing can sound incredibly complicated at first. Publishing a book alone is a daunting prospect for some. With the access to publishing getting more and more open every year, it can also seem like a field flooded with low-quality projects. Deciding to be an indie author can mean years of hard work with very little return on your investment.
Still, for those who are determined to get their work in front of people in exactly the way they envision it, indie publishing can be a worthy investment of time, effort, and resources. It can also be incredibly rewarding; knowing that a project you poured hours, days, weeks, or even years of your life into is being appreciated by an audience is a massive accomplishment worth being proud of.
So, if you choose to become an indie author, make sure that you are properly prepared. Know your audience, build a quality book, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You’re in control; make your book your way.