The Indie Author Grindstate Almost Killed Me

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I enrolled in an English & Creative Writing program in 2017 with two implicit goals: 1) obtain a degree, and 2) use the connections from the program to break into publishing. I had big dreams. I was going to sell so many science fiction and fantasy books that my idols were going to become jealous. I was going to break the mold. I was going to be one of those meteoric rises to success that other people reference in their blogs. Part of that degree program was a Digital Marketing for Authors class, which I originally thought was super dumb. I'm an introvert. Like many writers I know, the mere thought of whoring myself out on social media was cringe-inducing, and I naively believed I could avoid the worst of it by simply going the traditional publishing route and having a trade publisher do the work for me. Still, creating a Twitter was part of the course and posting regularly was the homework. The professor's rubric included pithy, uber-important phrases like "audience engagement" and "click-through" and "personal brand." These were the new Gods to whom all aspiring authors should make daily sacrifices. If I wanted to find success, I absolutely had to become a certified Twitter professional—indie or not. Give me the blue checkmark or give me death. I did the work. I read the articles and case studies and analyses. Alongside that course, I worked diligently in business management programs that sharply outlined the ins and outs of various author strategies. I learned the differences between indie, trade publishing, and hybrid. I wrote personal business proposals and future-proofed. I did market research. I joined writer groups. I was making contacts and rubbing elbows with the people that would get me where I needed to be. I had it all mapped out. It was somewhere around the beginning of 2018 that I made an important mental transition. I wanted to go indie, not trade. I wanted more freedom and more money to write what I wanted to write without being stifled by an old, stuffy, exclusive industry. All that work and deep-diving into professional writing highlighted a fanged truth about the publishing business: it was cutthroat, and it was cutthroat because it was fucking dying. The terrible, awful reality was (and still is) that less people are reading than ever, and that number is expected to rapidly plummet year-over-year for the foreseeable future. The publishing industry is facing challenges it's never faced. And while it's managed to hang on by the skin of its teeth through the rise of the Internet, video is truly killing the radio star. An excess of streaming services and video-on-demand social sites are absolutely obliterating the publishing industry, whose greatest weakness is simple speed. You can't write books as fast as you can make a TikTok. That's just good ole fashioned math, baby. In response to these factors, some authors—many of whom have come to the same conclusions and have also found the publishing industry to be highly restrictive and too selective—have backed new methods for author success. Namely, independent and hybrid publishing. The idea is simple enough. If the industry is too slow, and it's too slow because it's too selective of the content it produces, then speed it up. If the author themselves takes creative control over every aspect of the publishing machine, then they can put out books at their own pace and at whatever quality they choose. It creates freedom and it rallies against a traditionally (mostly) racist, classist, sexist industry. (To be fair, publishing is much better about inclusion and diversity than it used to be, as more and more authors have broken through and found ways to pull each other up. But it's important to note all the originating reasons behind the independent movement.) Indie authors quickly realized that publishing is slow because it has to be. There are various factors at work here, and all of them basically boil down to this: business is really fucking hard. This is especially true of business that's centered around creative work, which definitely offers value to the consumer, but whose value is not nearly as easy to pinpoint as more tangible assets (like a refrigerator or a car). We know people need art. But how much do they need it? That's up to a shrug, really. When that's the case, determining how to sell art is super hard. In response to this crushing realization, indies began turning to wider models of author business. They began writing blogs and selling "How to Be a Successful Indie Author" classes online. They utilized ad revenue streams. They made podcasts and YouTubes and formed writing teams that could produce books faster. They created companies that acted as lightning publishers. They worked as writing consultants and editors and learned how to design book covers. The indie community essentially became a simulacrum of the traditional publishing industry. In general, it can be said that the "traditional indie" industry produces similar products with lower quality and in less time. It's faster and lighter, but it lacks in quality. There are exceptions, of course, but we'll get to that. You can think of the traditional publishing industry like an expensive steakhouse. You go there for a carefully-prepared meal made by professionals who went through extensive training. Your food is made by people who have been making food for so long that they understand nuances you'll never hope to grasp, and which only matter to you when you take a bite. That is: you don't know why it's so fucking good, but it is. A lot of work went into preparing your meal and there's a lot of tradition behind that food on your plate. It was built over thousands of years and even more lifetimes. That's why it's expensive and why getting a reservation is hard. On the flip side, indie publishing is—essentially—McDonalds. Yes, every now and then it gives us the McRib. Most of the time, though, it gives us a floppy cheeseburger. It is designed for speed and efficiency. It makes its fortune through sheer volume and it doesn't give a shit about how impressed you are with the meal. It just wants you to eat and get out of the way so the next person can order. And it banks on you coming back because it's a hell of a lot cheaper than the expensive steakhouse and you don't have to wait forever to get your fix when you inevitably get hungry again. Both trade and indie produce basically the same things. Trade has all the same stuff indie has—masterclasses, author courses, blogs, podcasts. And, of course, books. But it doesn't push the grind the way indie does because it doesn't need to. There are teams of professionals working on these projects, and they can divvy the workload in a way that produces higher quality material (even though it might take longer). Indies, on the other hand, have to do all this work themselves. And this is where the real dark side of being an indie shows itself. We all know the balancing act you sign up for when you choose an indie approach to your business. You lose all those professionals having your back, but you gain control over every aspect of your business. In theory, this sounds awesome, because we're humans and power is a sweet, sweet drug. Exercising control over our lives is basically the only thing we really want, and extending that coveted control into our business ventures is a natural logical leap. We all want to be our own bosses. But there's a reason franchises are a thing. In a capitalist economy (which dominates most of the globe, directly or indirectly), convenience is king. If you cooked every meal you ate and performed all your own vehicular servicing and crafted all your own clothes you'd never have any time. Not only that, the quality of all that work would be necessarily hindered by the time you have available. In other words, even if you can do all that stuff, you only have so much time to do it. It's much easier to pay someone else to cook your food and do your oil changes and craft those jeans that make your butt look good. (So good, by the way. Keep it up.) I believe the indie authors really pushing the "grindstate" understand this. They know through sheer experience that quality work in a short time means having a team. That's why any successful indie isn't really indie. They flip their profits into hiring editors, cover designers, guest bloggers, and co-writers they can have on speed dial. Most of the incredible indie success stories you can name off the top of your head—the ones with courses and podcasts and blogs, and who attend conferences as panel speakers—are no longer doing the majority of their own work. Some of them aren't even writing their own books anymore. The most successful independent authors have simply created a tiny version of the traditional publishing industry around themselves. This is one of those "in plain sight" secrets that college courses don't prepare you for. And it's something I had to learn the hard way. See, I did all that stuff. On top of writing my own books, I started a podcast. I had a radio station for indie authors. I worked as an editor and a consultant and had courses on building personal brand. I engaged in panel discussions on the best strategies for selling your work as an indie. I built up a following and established a Patreon and did all the right things. I did most of that work all by myself. And it fucking destroyed me. (Shout-out to the people who helped me along the way. An even bigger shout-out to the people who collaborated with me on projects and/or helped me keep standing on the hard days. You know who you are.) I have the terrible fortune of being a military veteran, so I receive a comfortable monthly pension that allows me the freedom and time to do all that stuff. I don't have kids. I make my own schedule. For the most part, I have the sort of freedom that most authors can only dream of. And I worked myself so hard—for basically no money—that I mentally snapped and wound up in a hospital on suicide watch. For those of you wishing for freedom, hear this: too much freedom will kill you. I pulled insane hours every day on writing, podcasting, social media marketing, and branding. I invented new methods for revenue between creating the products my followers consumed. By and large, that work produced diminishing returns. That is, I put hours into podcasts and other projects that took away from story-writing, and I wasn't getting paid enough for any of it. At my final calculations, I was making about $35 US per month, which worked out to roughly $0.09 per hour, 12 hours of work a day, every day of the week. No breaks. No rest. No time for self care. Now, I made a lot of mistakes in there, but the point is that the freedom that entices you to be indie can quickly become a trap. A discerning few of you might ask why I worked so much when I have all the freedom in the world to not work at all. And if you dream of being a successful indie author, you're not going to like the answer. It's because I was truly independent, and that's what being independent looks like. It's really, really hard. When you hear talk of indie authors taking control of their business, that's what is happening. You are in control of literally everything, and there's only so much time in the day. You quickly find yourself on a hamster wheel. The equation goes something like this… You want to make money selling books, which means you need people to sell them to. So, you spend some time on social media building a following. Now, of course, you've got to write the book. And edit it. You've got to get the cover designed. While all of that is happening, it's important to stay connected with your followers and keep them interested in your project. But you also need to make money, because you have to pay for the editing and the cover design and the proofreading. Well, if you need money, you could make a Patreon! But that requires exclusive content, which means you now need to create some of that too. And on and on the spiral goes until you're creating content to financially support other content you haven't finished yet, all while totally having not done the thing you initially wanted to do, which is just to write a damn book. You know what type of authors have more freedom to sit down and write without all that hassle in the way? Yup. Trade-published authors. Now, I'm not trying to disparage the independent community. I'm just saying: being truly independent is a lot more work than it seems, and the less work you do, the longer it takes to produce things. The longer it takes to produce things, the less you get paid, which could be a serious issue if you're relying on this to pay your bills or buy your groceries. Most independent authors are incentivized to work extra fast, and many try to produce 3-4 books per year. (That's conceptualizing, writing, editing, formatting, finishing, and publishing a book every three to four months.) Some even publish a book per month. This strategy lends itself to the McDonalds theory we discussed earlier. At that point, it's not so much about how good the book is as about how many books you can produce. This is often especially true of romance authors, whose genre is upheld by the most voracious (and least discerning) readership on the market. The takeaway here—the lesson I'm attempting to impart—is that there is significantly less "independence" happening behind successful independent authors than is shown. Do not let them fool you. In the case of most financially independent authors I've interviewed, worked with, or met, they've flipped the profits from their initial works into building a team that is solely responsible for publishing their books. As I said before, many of these authors are relying on others to do the vast majority of their work for them. Some of them aren't writing their books at all. There are definite, legitimate ways to reach this place yourself. I tried (and failed) the broad approach, and admittedly spent more time on branding and other projects than I should've. In retrospect, I would've gotten farther by focusing on my books and getting them out there. A struggle personal to me is that my books are very long and I am a stickler about quality. Because these stories take forever to publish, I was trying to mitigate all that unpaid time with things I thought could keep me financially afloat (and keep my potential readership interested). It didn't work, as is often the case for indies trying to emulate the big success stories you read every day. A much more viable solution, especially for those with full-time jobs and families, is to hold only a modest (or no) following on social media, slowly write and publish books over time, and use the vast majority of profits for advertising. This tends to leverage advertising algorithms to the author's advantage, and is surprisingly more effective than you'd think, resulting in less work for more money. It's counterintuitive, but this approach is becoming all the rage in the indie space these days. A third option is to build a team of co-writers and to crank out product quickly, which has its own advantages and disadvantages (not the least of which is a loss of that precious control we all want so desperately). In the end, I think it comes down to what you want out of your writing. I know most articles like this eventually reach that conclusion, and it is perhaps unsatisfying, but it's really the only truth there is. If you want to be in the author business, you need to decide how much work you're truly willing to take on, and you need to understand that "independent" doesn't always mean independent. Don't be fooled by the indies out there with all these different projects going on. They have teams of people dedicated to their success (often paid staff). Trying to emulate them alone is a fool's errand. Trust me, I know. It will never be as easy as you want it. There is no magical formula for lazily putting out whatever quality of book you want and reaping millions in sales. Not alone, anyway, and not without substantial capital already behind you. Most authors—even those professional trade writers with the big names on the bookshelves—have to keep up a day job to make ends meet. The hard truth is that you want to feed a dying animal. People are reading less and writing takes forever. That's bad math, no matter how you spin it, and your fight will likely be uphill for a very long time. Possibly forever. Accept it now and get the hard part out of the way. That doesn't mean get discouraged. It means dig in your heels and make a decision. Do what you can to fulfill your dreams, if only for the simple fact that you can and what the fuck else are you going to spend your life doing if not what you love? If you want to write a book, write a book. Figure out the rest along the way. Don't think too hard about it. But please, indies, don't do it alone.

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