Brenna Aubrey self-published her debut romance novel At Any Price on the Amazon Kindle on 9 December 2013. One month later At Any Price had netted a total profit of £16,588. Aubrey’s success is far from unique – 2013 was a breakout year for “indie authors” led by the phenomenal success of Hugh Howey. But Aubrey is among the first in a wave of authors to do what, until very recently, would have been unthinkable; turn down a $120,000 (£72,000) deal from one of the big five publishing houses and decide to do their job herself.
For my work at The Guardian I spend a lot of time looking at new books, and I’ve gone out of my way to look at new books by indie published writers. And my conclusion has been that the vast majority of independently published writers aren’t ready. The books aren’t ready and their authors aren’t ready either in most cases. Nonetheless indie publishing is now an established route in to professional writing for those who are ready. So how do writers know when they are ready?
This is an attempt to lay out some criteria that might help writers of all kinds make that decision. It’s hard to objectively assess our own progress. The ego is constantly whispering, ‘of course we’re ready’, and part of the problem with not being ready is that you don’t yet have the tools to even know you are not ready! Of course there is very little true objectivity in the world of books, and these criteria are effected by my own subjective experience. But it is an experience that has spent a lot of time looking at indie published books, and the books I have spotted that do succeed do meet many if not all of these criteria.
It’s worth noting that no measure of this kind can deal with outliers. The writer who never wrote a word before writing that bestseller. The untrained talent that pens a literary masterpiece. It’s also worth noting that many outlier stories are marketing hype, they provide a hook story that helps sell the book, when you dig you find the author has been around for twenty years in various guises. And of course, there is nothing your ego likes to glom on to more than outlier examples of success. It loves to convince you that you can succeed without doing the work. If you’re betting on being an outlier these criteria won’t help, and I wish you good luck.
Finally, you might wonder how many of these criteria you should fulfil. I’d suggest if you fulfil even one, you’re in the right place to try and consciously go after three more. If you manage four, there’s a good chance you are ready to indie publish. All seven is likely to help your chances even more.
1. Do you have a great High Concept?
It’s all too easy to say a book like The Da Vinci Code is badly written. There are different levels of writing, and at the conceptual level Dan Brown’s mega-seller is brilliantly written. It’s the same kind of writing that makes a good ad campaign. Most of the effort has gone in to the concept. A great concept like The DaVinci Code sells itself from the title onwards. Another recent example might be Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Note that these concepts are great because they capture a zeitgeist, an idea which is in many peoples minds but the author is first to articulate. Copying a successful concept is not a high concept.
2. Have you practiced for 10,000 hours?
Malcolm Gladwell identifies 10,000 hours as the length of time it takes to achieve mastery in any discipline. It’s the amount of time you spend in school to age 16. It’s the amount of time The Beatles spent playing live gigs before they succeeded as recording artists. And it should be the amount of time you have spent writing before you publish your work. If you treat writing like a part-time job, and write for 20 hours a week, it will take you about 10 years to reach mastery. In my experience that’s about how long it takes most serious writers to go from greenhorn to seasoned pro. Some people start publishing before the 10,000 hour mark, but they often end up hiding their early work later in their career.
3. Have you subjected your work to serious criticism?
Would you launch a commercial product without testing it? If you do you massively increase your chances of failure. Find a source of serious criticism for your writing. Not your family, unless you’re certain they will give you honest feedback. Form a critique group of writers around your level, you can all grow together. This process will hurt. It’s supposed to hurt. Your ego will take a pummelling. All the excuses it makes on your behalf get stripped away, and you’re left with only the work itself. All serious artists seek out serious criticism and learn from it. If this idea seems abhorrent then you’re still learning to separate your self from your work.
4. Are you well read in your genre (and preferably beyond)?
Genres are just traditions in writing. You can think of any genre, from Epic Fantasy to Literary Fiction, as a path of progress through the forking possibilities of prose fiction. Would you honestly expect to become a blues musician without listening to a lot of blues? And do you think a great musician becomes great by only listening to blues? To excel in any art you have to absolutely immerse yourself in it. You can become a functional artist by learning one tradition in your art form. You take the step towards greatness when you learn multiple traditions and begin to interweave them. Look at the career of an artist like Picasso, who deliberately learned new traditions every few years, and with each step made his own art exponentially greater. If you want to write, get reading.
5. Do you have a platform?
Whether it’s your own chat show on prime time TV, or a few dozen followers on Twitter, having a platform from which you speak is essential for writers. Publishers can provide a platform, that’s the major service they provide to writers in fact. Indie authors must build their own. You might have 150,000 Twitter followers, but are they actually interested in your writing, or just the other 150,000 wannabe writers who also have 150,00 Twitter followers? Social media is a great tool for writers, it’s also a deceptive echo chamber that tells you what you want to hear. A few dozen people who really dig your work might be a much better starting point. The point is, know what your platform is and work with it, don’t delude yourself.
6. Are you willing to invest in your book?
Publishers provide cash investment in your book, primarily by buying the services of skilled professionals such as editors, designers and marketing folk. Perhaps you have those skills, in which case can you take enough time out of your day job to spend hours editing your book? And days or weeks of time marketing it? Do you have the money to invest in hiring professionals to do it for you and are you willing to risk it on your own product? Without that professional investment, which ultimately comes down to the investment of hard cash, your book is very unlikely to appear professional. Yes, your book might succeed despite its amateurish presentation, but ask yourself, if you aren’t willing to invest in this book then why are you putting it out in to the world?
7. Are you ready?
Seriously, in the end it comes down to asking yourself this question. Because it’s important to be ready. Your book already represents a major investment of time. Waiting another year or two or more, writing another draft or three or four, training for another 1000 hours, saving the capital to employ an editor. All of these things are the right choice for most writers, in a climate where 99% of indie authors are publishing without being ready. The most expensive investments are the ones that have no return. Unless you are truly certain in your own mind that you are ready, wait. Take more time to develop. You really won’t regret it.
And if you really can’t wait? If you don’t meet any of these seven criteria but want to leap in to the white waters of indie publishing anyway, just for the hell of it? Well then good luck to you, and enjoy the ride, wherever it takes you.