Indie Author Reveals All

by Kit Bakke

My daughter belongs to the twenty-something tattoo generation. Several years ago she urged me to get a tattoo, too. “OK,” I replied, “but only after my second book is published.” I imagined a tattoo of a fountain pen, with little drops coming off the point, one for each book.

Then, after basking in the glory of the 2006 publication of my Miss Alcott’s E-Mail, I spent most of 2009-2010 collecting rejections for my middle-grade novel Dot to Dot. Finally fed up, I swallowed my pride and turned to the dark side: self-publishing. After some sketchy research, and despite their dopey name, I settled on the home team: Amazon’s CreateSpace. Then, in my first phone call with a charmingly Southern-accented salesperson who kept calling me “ma’am,” I learned that CreateSpace is located in Charlotte, NC. Amazon bought an existing printing business there and rebranded it as their own. The press continues to print books from mainstream publishers as well as print-on-demand (POD) CreateSpace books. They’ve added an á là carte suite of editorial, design and marketing services as well, all available to frustrated authors like me.

I feel as if I’m outing myself, opening my secret closet of gangly, embarrassing skeletons, but in the months since I pulled the trigger with CreateSpace, the environment has become increasingly friendly toward self-publishing. One article called us “indie authors.” I suspect there are thousands of writers out there who gain daily strength from thriller author Barry Eisler’s March announcement that he had turned down a half-million dollar deal with St. Martin’s Press in order to self-publish his next book. And then there are all those unlikely people like Amanda Hocking who’ve made a fortune self-publishing e-books.

So what’s it like to self-publish a book? How is it different from going with a mainstream publisher? Everybody’s experience is different, but here are a few observations and tips to mull over if you are thinking of jumping on or off either platform. 

I contacted CreateSpace in the middle of November 2010 with an inquiry straight off their website. A sales guy named Gaines Hill shot back an answer the next day, and despite my getting his name turned around to Hill Gaines a couple times, we got along fine. He described the process and my options and offered me a package of about $2,000 to publish Dot to Dot.

That’s the first difference between self-publishing and mainstream publishing: the author has to have money. For my two grand I bought interior design, comprehensive editing, twenty free books, multiple opportunities to review and alter proofs, paperback full-color binding, up to ten interior images, a review by Kirkus, and distribution through multiple channels including Amazon, Ingram and Baker & Taylor.

I chose not to use CreateSpace for the cover design, as my daughter had a graphic designer friend who did it for about $600 (same price as CreateSpace would have charged). She also designed the map I needed for the interior, bookmarks for handing out at bookstores, and helped with images for my new website.

Each author has a team of CreateSpace people to work with. I was very impressed with their timely responsiveness, both by email and phone. Since CreateSpace makes its money on throughput of titles (as opposed to volume of sales of individual titles), they are incented to move quickly and accurately.

As a CreateSpace client, you have access to a slick online dashboard of your manuscript’s progress.  It’s very easy to see

whose court each piece of work is in, what’s coming up and how to prepare for it. I found this very different from the mainstream process, where I was frequently in the dark about my responsibilities, what deadlines we were operating under, where the book stood at any particular moment, and where I was allowed input and where not.  Take covers, for example, which tend to be traditionally angst-ridden for authors, because publishers view covers as marketing and authors are generally not allowed input. I saw the cover of Miss Alcott’s E-Mail for the first time in the publisher’s catalog. Obviously, it was much more fun to be involved in the cover design of Dot to Dot from the ground up.

The speed of production is another big difference between self- and mainstream publishing. Miss Alcott’s E-Mail took two years from contract signing to release. Dot to Dot has taken a little over seven months. The pace is largely controlled by the author’s change requests. The number of change requests is dependent on how complete the manuscript really was when submitted, and how carefully the author has thought through the various design options in advance.

For instance, do you want your chapter headings to be at the top of each page? Or your name? Or the book title? Do you want the page numbers left- or right-aligned, or centered? Do you want new chapters to always begin on the right-facing page? What font do you want to use? Are there multiple fonts in the text? How do they look together? CreateSpace provides a series of questions to guide you through these choices, and white papers on design tips, but sometimes you don’t really know how it will look until you see a proof. 

CreateSpace’s package gives you three rounds of interior proof changes, and one round of a complete, bound proof to approve. Additional changes are possible at a cost (under $100 for a round of twenty or so changes).

The big downside of self-publishing, of course, is lack of push distribution. You could also say that lack of print reviews is another deficit, but the evidence is cloudy on the impact of reviews on sales. However, having no publisher’s representative visiting booksellers with a catalog listing your book is a definite problem, solved only by more work on the author’s part. I believe, though, that as mainstream publishers continue to cut book-launch spending (not to mention reduced editorial services and design options), the difference between the two methods is diminishing. The fact that CreateSpace books can be ordered through the standard distributers Ingram and Baker & Taylor is a huge plus, one that I’ve found that not many booksellers themselves know.

How does a self-published book get priced? The author sets the price! I’ve chosen to go low because it’s a middle-grade novel and I don’t want to create a price barrier. How does the self-published author make money? The CreateSpace author gets 40-80% of the cover price (less production costs) of every book sold, depending on the channel. That compares with about 6% I received for my mainstream published book.

So that’s the scoop from my experience. It’s been fun. I love the book. Now I have to go turn myself into a publicist. Oh, and get a tattoo.

Kit BakkeComment