Tales from the indie trenches – guest post by Craig Lancaster


Today I’m turning this space over to Craig Lancaster, a Billings, Montana, author whose Edward books – 600 HOURS OF EDWARD, EDWARD ADRIFT and now, EDWARD UNPSOOLED – introduced me to one of my favorite protagonists.

Sunday, March 16, 2014.Craig Lancaster Photo by Casey Page

Sunday, March 16, 2014.Craig Lancaster
Photo by Casey Page

Although Craig – who also writes very fine standalone novels – has stuck with his main character through this particular series, the way I’m getting the books has changed. He’s gone from indie to traditionally published to back again, at least for this book. His reasons are intriguing and thought-provoking, and there’s a ton of good information in his post. Check it out. Me, I’m going to go back to reading EDWARD UNSPOOLED. FYI, the audiobook came out yesterday.


By Craig Lancaster

edwardunspooledOn July 23, I launched my independently published sixth novel, EDWARD UNSPOOLED. I detailed the reason I chose to go indie in a piece with Last Best News and folded that decision into the larger context of independence in the creative arts in Billings, Montana, where I live. It’s a long piece but worth the time to read, I think. Cool things are happening.

Here, thanks to Gwen’s graciousness, I’d like to dig deeper into going indie: the costs of getting the title launched, the first-week results, options for distribution, and what I might choose to do with my next novel. (If there is a next novel, I should add. It took me too damned long to write one, let alone six, to blithely assume that I’ll write something publishable in the future.)


The decision

Deciding to go for it was the easy part. When the publisher of my first five novels passed on a third Edward Stanton novel on grounds that were not editorial in nature, I knew I wanted to find a way to bring the book out. Further, in many ways I’d been waiting for the opportunity. I self-published my first novel seven years ago, haphazardly and with no real strategy or expectations, before it was picked up by a publisher. I wanted to see what might happen if I approached an independent project in a more businesslike way.

My strategy this time:

  • Build a handsome physical artifact for paperback distribution, online and in brick-and-mortar stores, using print-on-demand technology. Because the Edward series had two previous installments, I hired the cover designer for those books to do this one. I handled the interior design myself; a good chunk of my living is made doing publication design, so it wasn’t a stretch. I hired a copy editor for the manuscript for the simple reason that one has as much business being his own copy editor as one does being her own heart surgeon.
  • Commission a professional-grade e-book. In this case, I farmed the work out, but one of my goals going forward is to learn how to do it myself. I spent 25 years in the newspaper business, most of them in production roles that demanded familiarity with desktop publishing. I’m confident I can do this.
  • Hire a narrator for the audiobook version and produce it through com, for distribution to Amazon, Audible and iTunes. The narrator I hired, David Otey, is also a deft editor, so I received proofreading as part of the deal. I chose him for his voice, but this was a nice side benefit.

This three-pronged strategy would allow me to meet readers in the same places my work had always been available to them. This was vitally important to me.


The costs

I’m forgoing my actual line-item costs so as not to compromise the vendors I worked with. But here are the individual tasks I commissioned, along with cost ranges for those services:

Cover design: I got a cover that fits seamlessly with the other books in the series, done by a professional who knows how to make these things pop in the hand and at thumbnail size on a screen. Your costs can run from the hundreds to the thousands depending on what you want and the designer you choose.

Copy editing: If you’re considering indie publishing and budgeting for a copy editor—and you absolutely should—consider setting aside $800 to $1,000 for this. And, please, hire a professional editor, not your English major cousin on your father’s side.

E-book formatting: Depends on length and graphic effects.

Audiobook narration: From the high hundreds to the thousands, depending on the book and the performer. There are also royalty-sharing models; I prefer to pay a flat rate and be done. The audiobook went live only in the past few days, so I don’t have a market-based assessment of the cost vs. benefit, just a gut reaction. I couldn’t be happier with the result. I ended up with rich narration by someone who made an emotional connection with my story and brought that to the effort.

I also fronted the expense of printing about 100 paperbacks that were distributed to independent booksellers in Montana. That, however, wasn’t a sunk cost, as the funds will return to me. More on distribution in a bit.

My total outlay came to less than $3,000. I should earn that back in the first month. Your mileage may vary.


Print distribution

Look, I’m one guy publishing one book under his own literary imprint (Missouri Breaks Press). I’m not going to get my book in every Barnes & Noble. Moreover, the truth is that most authors, indie or otherwise, aren’t going to see that happen. It’s online where I can claim the same virtual shelf space as a Big Five big hitter.

However, print is still a big part of my strategy.

The first thing I had to do was ensure that my book could be competitively priced with other trade paperbacks. I landed at a $14.95 retail price for the paperback. For all the advantages of print on demand in terms of ease of production, there is the associated ill of cost: a traditional print run of, say, 5,000 books can drive the per-unit cost of a book down to less than $2. On the other hand, you have to write that first big check and find a place to store the books until they sell. With print-on-demand technology, books can be manufactured as they’re needed, but the per-unit cost is fixed. My 286-page novel costs $4.28 per book to print. Once that comes off the top of the $14.95, and once the retailer takes its cut (about 40 percent), there’s not a lot left. And I haven’t even talked about returnability—where the books come back and the refunds go out, rendering the whole enterprise a non-starter.

Bottom line: Big publishers can accept returns. I can’t.

I had to work around that convention of the bookselling business. I contacted independent bookstores in my state, the ones I’ve visited and the ones who’ve sold a lot of my books, and offered them a deal: 60 percent off the cover price, I do the invoicing, they pay for shipping, no returns.

When all the math shakes out, I make $1.50 per book—about what I’d see from the same book sold by a publisher through the trade. The difference is, I see it in 30 days or fewer. The attraction for the bookseller is that it ends up with half again as much return when a book sells.

That’s a win for me and a win for the culture I care about.

I make a little more when a paperback is sold on Amazon.com and a lot more when someone buys a signed copy direct through my website, but in the end I really don’t care about the difference in the margins. What’s important is being available in the places my work has always been found, and in finding a way to support those with whom I’m in business while also supporting myself.


E-book distribution

Here lies the real opportunity for the indie author. And it comes with big question.

Do you cast your lot with exclusivity on the Kindle platform (KDP Select) and stick to the dominant e-book retailer while getting all the bells and whistles that program offers (days when you can make a title free to gin up interest, countdown deals, sharing in the monthly fund attached to Kindle Unlimited, which was $12 million in July)? Or do you cast a wider net and make your book available across the spectrum of e-book readers who use Kobo, the Nook, the iPad, Sony, etc.?

In the abstract, I align with the thinking of bestselling author Dana Stabenow, who says “exclusivity is not a sales engine.”


Because EDWARD UNSPOOLED is No. 3 in a series, and because the first two titles are exclusive to Kindle, I didn’t see a lot of upside in going a different way with this one. Any new readers attracted to the series on other platforms would end up being frustrated by the inaccessibility of the first two novels. I’m a little hemmed in by history here.

In the future, should I continue indie publishing, I’ll give wider distribution its due consideration.

The other big decision any indie author faces is price. I settled at $4.99 for the e-book, which I think is attractive and fair and comes with a reasonable return. At the KDP royalty rate of 70 percent, that’s almost $3.50 per e-book sold. Put another way, the rate is almost three times as much as the e-book royalty rate offered by most publishers.

And make no mistake: Big publishers are making big money in the e-book arena, certainly much more than most of their authors are seeing. Authors are noticing, and complaining. And, in one notable case, seeking redress in court.

Paper distribution is still very much the province of established publishers, with some possibilities for an indie with existing bookstore relationships. With e-books, there is real opportunity for the independent-minded writer.


First-week sales

I had the e-book version of EDWARD UNSPOOLED available for pre-order on Amazon.com for 16 days before it launched. In that time, it netted 264 orders.

On July 23, the book’s first day of release, it sold 77 more e-book copies. And then it settled into a rhythm, anywhere from the high teens to the low 30s per day, for a first week total of 518 e-book sales. I’m thrilled with that, and hopeful that with some merchandising on the KDP platform in August I’ll see similar or perhaps even better numbers. And then it’ll be the same thing every author wants when a new book comes out: I’ll hope readers enjoy it and tell their friends, and their friends read the book and tell their friends, and so on.

Word of mouth is a book’s greatest ally, no matter how you go about putting your work in front of readers. I said this in an interview a few years ago, and I believe it all the more today: “Blockbusters may be conceived at the marketing table, but individual readers decide what they like and what they recommend to their friends.”

In that same week, 23 paperback copies sold through Amazon.com to readers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. It’s a little early to get reports from the indie booksellers here in Montana, but the initial orders buoyed me. I certainly hope I’ll be refilling them soon.

With my book enrolled in Kindle Select, it’s also available through Kindle Unlimited, the program where e-book lovers can read as much as they like for a flat monthly fee. I’ll be watching this closely. Amazon pays authors in Kindle Unlimited on the basis of what it calls “normalized page reads.” The amount varies month to month; for July, it came to about 75 cents for every 300 “normalized page reads.” My book’s first week drew 19,368 page reads, which comes to a little less than $50. The question I’ll have to resolve if I do this again is whether I’d have made that $50, or more, in wider distribution. If so, I’ll have to weigh my options.

Here’s where my decision to go indie gives me the most comfort. The book is out in the world now, and I retain control over how it’s presented and priced. If I find that the promotional text isn’t working, I can change it. If it needs to be at a lower price point, I can drop it. If a reader is kind enough to point out a big honking error that was missed in the writing and editing, I don’t have to shrug my shoulders. I can fix it.

And the book can find its audience on its own timetable; it hasn’t been saddled with Big Publishing’s expectation that it make a big splash in four weeks or get off the stage.

I’m thoroughly happy with the decision I made.


What of the future?

So given my happiness, I must be a committed, full-time indie author now, right?

Well, no. Not necessarily.

What I am, and happily so, is a hybrid author, one who has independently released his own work and signed contracts with publishers. The ethic of the hybrid route is that I hold no fealty to any particular way of doing things. What I’m more interested in is the most sensible approach for each project. My experience with this book has simply given me another path to choose.

I’m not blind to the fact that releasing the third installment of a popular series gave me access to an audience that might not be interested in the next standalone novel I write. My past experiences with the publisher of my first five novels—a publisher whose innovations and marketing savvy introduced my work to readers around the world—suggest that I’d do well to work with that team in the future. If there’s a fourth Edward book, I’ll probably be at this again. A standalone I might shop elsewhere. If I get a wild hair and decide to start writing about wereferrets, I’m probably on my own. The point is, the options and decisions are mine.

I dig that.


One last thing

I’ve made a deal with myself not to offer advice until I’ve had a chance to really study what happens with this book and make adjustments based on what I see.

But I’ll step outside of that deal for two things.

The first is monetary. For the prospective indie author, the whole point is to exercise greater control over the enterprise and thus extract the attendant pleasures, whether they be a sense of entrepreneurship, pride in the work, or financial gains. Please avoid pay-for-play schemes, like “author service providers” that take a big upfront fee to get your book in the market, sell you a bunch of worthless marketing measures, then stay attached to your book like a remora, sucking down royalties (if you’re lucky enough to generate any). For most editorial tasks, you’re better off paying a one-time fee to a designer, a formatter and a copy editor, then handling the publishing yourself. There’s a lot of information on the Web, and a lot of experienced people who are generous with their wisdom. Soak it up.

The second is on the subject of standards. Self-publishing gets knocked a lot because there are a lot of amateurs out there trying to do it. Be a pro. Get a cover that looks as good as what the Big Five turn out. Hire a manuscript editor who can make your book, and you, better.

You’ll be glad you did. So will your readers.


Preferred vendors

Here are the talented folks who helped me bring EDWARD UNSPOOLED to market. I wholeheartedly recommend each:

Cover design: Brian Zimmerman at Cre843. Contact him through Cre843.com.

Copy editing: Jim Thomsen of Desolation Island Editing Services. He’s the best. Contact him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.

E-book formatting: Jovana Shirley at Unforeseen Editing. She also offers manuscript editing and design. Contact her through unforeseenediting.com.

Audiobook narration: David Otey at Speaking of Solutions. His website: davidoteysos.com.

Craig Lancaster is the author of six novels and a collection of short stories. His work has received a High Plains Book Award and an Independent Publisher Book Awards gold medal. He lives in Billings, Montana, with his fiancée, Elisa Lorello, also a bestselling novelist.

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