The Joys of an Indie Author

Saturday, July 11, 2020
As I recently worked through my to-do list with its various tasks, which sometimes seem overwhelming, I realized I also like have so many different kinds of things to do. Twenty years ago, when I started writing again, I imagined my career as an author as being very different than what it’s turned out to be.

Back then, there was only one way to get published, the traditional way. Authors wrote stories to the best of their ability, then tried to find an agent to sell them to a publisher. You submitted query letters, sometimes with the first three chapters, via the U.S. Mail. And then you waited.

If you were lucky, one of those agents would ask for a “partial,” that first three chapters, and sometimes a “full,” the entire novel, after that. The process took months, if not years. If the agent agreed to represent you, she (or he, but most agents in my experience were women) then approached various publishers they worked with regarding publication.

There might be an interim step where the agent requested some changes to your manuscript. They’d often tell you where the story dragged or suggest a scene that needed adding or cutting. The writer would eagerly make those changes and send the revised manuscript back.

And then the fabulous day would come when a publisher accepted your story for publication. After additional revisions and editing, your book went off into the machine of the publishing company to get a cover, a description, and the interior layout designed. The author had no say about any of this. The next they knew of the book was when a limited number of copies arrived on their doorstep.

Because an indie author is their own publisher, they do all the work the traditional publisher did in the past. Some of this they’ll hire other people to do. They’ll hire an editor to make their story stronger and/or improve their sentences and a proofreader to catch typos and misspellings. They write their own book descriptions, spending hours learning copywriting so they’re strong selling tools. They’ll buy a pre-made cover or contract with a cover designer to do a custom cover. Most authors can do the interior layout, or formatting, themselves now, although you can hire someone to do that, too.

I’ve found that I like doing most of these tasks myself.

There’s something about taking a raw story through all the steps to publication that I find very rewarding. Each part of the process makes the book more mine.

I do have what are called beta readers, who read my novels with an eye toward what is confusing, where the story gets boring, and inconsistencies like changing the name of a character halfway through the book, and I often hire a cover designer. But I do my own copyediting, formatting, and even, sometimes, cover designs. Maybe I’m weird, but I even like proofreading my books by reading them out loud.

After wrestling with Scrivener’s formatting function—called a compile—for months on end, now that I understand it and have a basic format I can copy and modify fairly easily. I love picking out fleurons, or scene separators, to suit the type of book, and playing with different decorations for the chapter headings. For the print book, I usually use the font that’s on the cover for page headers and footers, but sometimes I change those up as well.

Covers are the most challenge, but in their own way the most fun. My graphics and design skills are not the strongest. I’m not expert in any of the photo manipulation programs by any means, and it takes me a long time to figure out how to do what I want in Gimp (a free program) or Affinity Photo (a relatively inexpensive, but slick one). Choosing an appropriate font or font combination and arranging the words of the title and my name and whatever else goes on a cover in the appropriate size and colors (called typography), is an entire skill in and of itself. That’s why I generally hire a cover designer.

With any luck, you and the designer “click” in your vision for a cover and a process for creating new ones. Sometimes the combination doesn’t quite gel. That happened recently, and it’s plunged me into an attempt to do my own cover for The Case of the Comely Clairvoyant. In the end, I might hire a cover designer to do that one as well, but I’m kind of enjoying the process of putting pictures and shapes and colors and typography together myself. Even if it’s taking me f-o-r-e-v-e-r.

I suppose what brought this enjoyment to mind lately was reading Relative Fortunes by Marlowe Benn. This is a historical mystery set in the 1920s in New York. The amateur sleuth is Julia Kydd, who runs a small boutique press that prints slim volumes with carefully chosen endpapers and covers and typesetting. There are several passages where the heroine talks about her love for doing this. It’s not about the content to her—apparently, the trend then was to choose something out of copyright or by an obscure author, but about the making of beautiful books. And I kind of feel that way about my own books. Putting the whole package together, including the prose, is something I love doing.

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