How I Became a “Vigilante Author”

On June 22, I became a vigilante author.

On that date, I joined the Self-Publishing Revolution by “indie”-publishing my novel HUNTER: A Thriller. I’m just one of thousands of authors to do this. And this trend is changing the face of publishing.

Never before have authors had so many options: traditional publishing, small-press publishing, “indie” (self) publishing, print publishing, audio publishing, ebook publishing, and who knows what else. New technology and free markets are creating a competitive landscape that is putting writers in the driver’s seat, perhaps for the first time in history. Big publishers are being compelled to offer better deals, or else they’ll lose big-name authors like J.K. Rowling.

Here’s one face in the Self-Publishing Revolution: mine.

I wrote my novel on a brilliant creative writing software package, WriteItNow, which cost me a grand total of $59. I finished up on Microsoft Word, which I’ve had for years from an old job, and which therefore cost me nothing.

I filed my paperwork with the state from my home computer to register my publishing business, Avenger Books. Paperwork filing cost: $25.

I contracted out for a first-rate book cover, done for just $250 bucks by a kid out of state. He did a blog header for me, just as cool, for another $250. And a great business logo for just $40.

My ebook and print-book formatting and layout were done by a guy in Britain, who turned around the entire job in 36 hours — for a total of less than $150.

ISBN numbers for my book were free from Smashwords and Amazon.

My photographer accepted a nice dinner in payment for a terrific series of portraits.

Cost of blog hosting: $48 per year.

Cost of domain name for a year: $9.

Cost of ebook uploading to Amazon: $0.

Amazon marketing cost of ebooks: 30%, leaving me 70% royalties.

Up-front cost of Amazon producing my print books: $0.

Distribution cost of print books: $39, for Amazon’s enhanced distribution to the book trade, so that people can order the book at their local bookstores.

P.O. Box rental: about $45 for six months.

Ebook distribution costs: $0.

Online marketing costs: Just my time.

Print book costs (for books bought, then sold and shipped by me): less than half the list price.

Bottom line: I’ve written and published a good novel, in formats of a quality comparable to that of major publishers, and I’ve launched a self-publishing business — all for about $1000. I did it years faster than if I had gone through the mainstream publishing “query-go-round.” And, if I had not bothered setting up the Avenger Books business imprint and customized blog, or insisted on as good a book cover, etc., I probably could’ve gotten away with publishing the ebook and p-book for $200-$300.

This is what is threatening the established book industry right now. Their fixed costs are gargantuan, and their business model outmoded. Big publishing houses, book agents, and brick-and-mortar bookstores are rapidly becoming exorbitantly expensive middle men whose only real services are printing, distribution, and marketing — middle men that many authors no longer need and whose services they can easily replace with low-cost contract labor.

Which is why print book sales and chain bookstores continue to circle the drain.

And which is why so many authors are going “vigilante.” In rebellion against lousy contracts, pitiful royalties, endless delays, and lost subsidiary rights, they’re defying the publishing Establishment and taking its “laws” of publishing into their own hands. They’re assuming full responsibility, not only for the creative writing process, but also for the editing, design, production, and marketing of their work. And because they are focused entirely on their own books, they find that they can do the job just as well, if not better, and with far greater rewards.

Now is the time for other authors and would-be authors to join their ranks in this revolution. They have nothing to lose but their demeaning, subordinate status in the publishing process.

And as they do, I’ll be celebrating their stories in future posts here.

This entry was posted in Biographical, HUNTER: A Thriller, Inspirational, Publishing Advice. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to How I Became a “Vigilante Author”

  1. I question the survival of traditional publishing as a business model in this economic climate. One thing is certain–they have to re-tool, rethink, or go under.

    • Anonymous says:

      For sure, Stephen. They’re putting a brave face on it, but many of the traditional houses are in trouble, and they know it. Amazon is scaring the hell out of them, especially since it is now entering the publishing business big-time. I’ve already read one industry insider drop the word “monopolistic.” Don’t be surprised to see these people, in desperation — and in direct contradiction to the First Amendment — try to use the power of government and antitrust laws to bridle Amazon’s threat, which they can’t meet in free and fair competition in the marketplace.

      • Terri Reid says:

        Excellent blog, thanks Robert. I love the fact that indie authors are now being recognized as a force to reckon with in the world of books. I agree with Stephen (who does an amazing job of selling e-books!) that the traditional publishers are going to have to retool in order to work with us.

  2. Darlenelofgren says:

    Well said! As always. And an anatomy of successful publishing. My current question has to do with libraries…As a senior citizen I don’t buy fiction. I ready about 15 books a month from the library. I hate reading on the computer, though I’m told the little reader things are easy on the eyes, but I’m not budgeted to buy one. So! I’m thinking…then how ’bout a self-publisher “donating” a book to some of the major city libraries. New York. L.A. Houston. Etc. One book each. If the demand for the book is great, then the library will purchase more copies. And the whole cycle of how to access and read books would be complete!?

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s a great idea, Darlene. I’ll certainly consider this for my local libraries and others, as the book’s sales success warrants.

      • Darlenelofgren says:

        I do my own formatting for CP. It wasn’t so hard, using Word. The only problem I had was they only accept a PDF of it, and I didn’t have a satisfactory program for that. So they did it for me – for free. I keep forgetting all these experts you got! – One of my goals is an office assistant – and boy will she/he be busy getting my books/short stories/poems into the proper formats for print, and for ebooks. I’ve spent enough time on that. I want to WRITE, not fORMAT!

  3. C Swanson says:

    Great post, Robert. I just attended SCBWI* after having self-pubbed in May. The range of response (from those inside traditional publishing)to self-publishing was fascinating. Many are intrigued, some poo-poo the idea that indie authors make money, some are scared for publishing. I left the conference feeling that I’d made a good decision for my indie-pubbed series. And, like other indies, I’ll continue shopping other manuscripts to the trade publishers. It’s a win-win for me.

    *Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators–celebrated 40 years this August; For the annual conference, they bring in the big guns in terms of authors, illustrators, and industry pros.

    • Anonymous says:

      That’s what’s great about all the options open to us now, isn’t it? Writers for the first time have all sorts of opportunities to choose from. There is nothing wrong with a carefully considered decision to publish traditionally, if the terms are right. In my own case, I’d consider it…for “life-changing money.” But as things are shaping up, I believe the “life-changing money” is much more likely to occur in my case through “indie” publishing. Besides: I have a “vigilante” image to uphold!

      • C Swanson says:

        Ha! Yes, that image is molto importante! It will be interesting to see where the “life-changing money” goes the next three years. Did you catch the articles on John Locke’s deal with Simon and Schuster today? I saw no numbers and may go hunting to find them.
        Cidney
        edited: here’s a link for an example: http://bit.ly/odWGkk

        • Anonymous says:

          Cidney, I saw a NYT piece about this. I think it’s very significant that Locke got S&S to agree to let him keep his ebook rights; they only get the print rights (and we have no idea on what terms). Big publishers are going to have to make big concessions on ebooks if they expect to prevent an exodus of their major authors.

        • Anonymous says:

          Let me update my comment (below) after perusing the reader comments to the PW piece you linked to. It seems to me that Simon & Schuster aren’t even publishing Locke’s print books: They’re going to DISTRIBUTE them to bookstores, which is something completely different. If true, then Locke remains the (self-)publisher and retains all print rights to his intellectual properties, as well as the ebook rights. That would transform S&S from being a publisher into acting as a delivery boy for a vigilante author.

          Again, if true, bravo for Mr. Locke!

  4. An excellent post that hits the nail squarely on the head: the old publishing paradigm is certainly undergoing a metamorphosis (I’m reticent to consign it to history just yet). The power is certainly switching to us as authors and that is a most welcome change.

    • Anonymous says:

      Many have said it: There has never been a better time to be a writer. And it’s absolutely true. One of my major hopes with this blog is to encourage those who, like me, wasted years in frustration or despair, never believing that their writing would have decent prospects of publication. That has all changed now. New technology has leveled the playing field, and we can now compete on a far more equal footing to find our readers.

  5. Shawn Reynolds says:

    Robert, congratulations on the launch of The Vigilante Author! Another job well done. I’m proud and honored to say I know you and I admire you beyond words for having the courage and determination to take this challenge and fulfill your dreams. You deserve all the accolades and rewards you receive for your efforts. Plus you deserve tons of credit for being willing to share what you know about indie publishing and for raising awareness among authors and readers alike. May you enjoy continued success with HUNTER and even greater success with all your future work.

    • Anonymous says:

      Shawn, my friend, I’m touched by those words and by your constant enthusiasm and support. I’m a little old to be just starting in this game. Let’s hope that I’ve learned a little over the years that might be useful to others.

  6. RJ Miller says:

    Strangely enough, I think this is the first blog devoted to writing and publishing alone that I might actually come back to on a regular basis. You have definitely inspired me so far!

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks! Given the quality of insight and experience that some bloggers are drawing upon, that’s a huge compliment.

      Perhaps one of the distinctive things that I can bring here will be a positive outlook on all of this upheaval in the book industry. Your kind comment inspires me to address this in my next blog post.

  7. Dymphna says:

    In a way, this is like the old Samizdata in the USSR. Given the growing amount of government regulation, I hope Amazon is *permitted* to continue with their part. That’s where I got my Kindle version of your book.

    BTW, our small country library, not supported by govt money, has found a way to ‘rent’ books for a period and then they’re returned — to whom I don’t know. But that’s another thing to consider:as gummint money dries up for “luxuries” like libraries, this endeavor will become more crucial.

    I notice that some of your costs are of the “Start-Up” variety. So what would you predict your next book will cost when you don’t have to factor some of that expense into the second?

    Heh. Must really free up your ‘muse’ now that the headache part is done.!

    • Anonymous says:

      Dymphna, thanks for visiting and commenting.

      I like your analogy to the Samizdata era. I trust that it won’t come to that here, where government will try to crack down on independent publishing platforms like Amazon. States are already trying to do this with Internet taxation, but that’s small change. The real worry is anti-trust.

      Last week I read some industry muckamuck mention the word “monopolistic” in describing Amazon. What she meant was “successful.” Amazon has brilliantly achieved complete “vertical integration” in the book business: from distribution to the reading public (Amazon.com, Kindle), through self-publishing authors (Kindle Direct Publishing, CreateSpace print publishing), through new launches of “traditional”-type publishing imprints (e.g., Thomas & Mercer). They are offering readers a greater array of books, in more formats, quickly and conveniently, and cheaper than any bookstore can. And they are now offering writers infinitely better contract terms and royalties than any traditional publisher does, or probably can.

      This is a problem? For whom? Certainly not for readers and writers–those whom the publishing industry claims to serve.

      There are several suppliers of ebooks to libraries, including some mainstream publishers themselves. They’re haggling now over rental terms and conditions, so that the library market doesn’t undercut publisher sales.

      You’re right: Many of my costs to date are “start-up” capital investments. I don’t have to pay additionally for this blog design and header, for example. My writing software, state filing fee, business logo, and author photos are also one-shot expenses. While there will be expenses for each subsequent book (e.g., covers, formatting, office supplies, shipping, annual domain registrations, etc.), I’ve learned a lot that will allow me to cut costs the next time. The one that will most impact the print edition is that I now know how to reduce the page count, hence the cost, hence its price. If I can get the price reduced, I’ll be able to place the next book into bookstores.

      What will really free up my “muse” is to have the first book selling well and never going “out of print.” That an income flow will allow me to work on the next book without the pressure of worrying about how I’m going to pay the bills.

      If you haven’t yet read the novel, I hope you enjoy it.

      • Darlenelofgren says:

        Robert, as for getting a trade paperback of the first book, you can redo the font size and make a huge difference in size, and therefore, cost, as I’m sure you’re know. I redid my self-published book (Michael’s Mom) on Cafepress. Since it’s all print on demand, they accept an edited version with no extra charge.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I’m curious about why you established your own publishing company? Do you plan to publish other authors or publish as pen names under the same company? Do you think that by having a company it makes you look more like you are traditional published vs. self-published? Not criticizing, just curious. And if you do think that having the publishing company helped with sales, how much impact do you think it has had?

    • Anonymous says:

      All great questions.

      There’s no question that having a publishing company (and mine is a registered business, not just a name) adds the cachet and legitimacy of “small press” to a book.

      One of the strikes against indie authors has been the unfortunate legacy of “vanity publishing,” in which an author fronts a ton of cash to some “press,” in order to have their often-amateurish, unedited, unmarketable manuscripts printed–only to languish in the basement or garage in moldering boxes, unsold. This is what too many people still think of as “self-publishing.” That image is changing, but I didn’t want to have to fight it when I published “HUNTER.” The Avenger Books imprint was meant primarily to overcome the stigma of “vanity publishing.”

      I don’t know if the “Avenger Books” name on my book’s product page at Amazon has enticed anyone to buy the book, or if it has overcome the “vanity” stigma. But with all the challenges any indie publisher faces, I didn’t want that to be one of them.

      Also, I initially had hoped to place the print edition of “HUNTER” into bookstores, too, and the small-press image would have helped overcome the barriers to entry (almost all bookstores reject indie-published books). It turns out that production costs made that impossible for me, anyway. But if you want to have your book in bookstores, then publishing under a small press imprint is a very good idea.

      More generally, though, I also want to treat my self-publishing AS A BUSINESS. I want every aspect of my writing and publishing to exude complete professionalism: a quality and an image to rival anything put out by my competitors: major publishing houses, small presses, and fellow indie authors. Why should readers buy my book instead of theirs, if it appears to be a vanity project?

      Too many writers, enticed by the low start-up costs, dive into self-publishing as a lark. They dash of a first-draft manuscript, slap on a cover designed by their sister, upload it to Amazon…then wonder why the sales don’t roll in.

      To succeed at indie publishing, or anything else, requires a lot of hard work. First, work in crafting the best damned book you possibly can. That’s basic. Then, researching this entire new self-publishing industry, and learning everything you can about it. Then, not scrimping on your cover or formatting. Then, honing your online promotional blubs and jacket copy, spending a lot of time developing a marketing plan, and exploiting online platforms such as blogs and social networking sites. As I say, a lot of work.

      Finally, I had toyed seriously with the idea of publishing other authors. While I haven’t ruled it out entirely, I’m over 90% sure that I won’t. I’m a writer, not primarily a publisher; I’m a publisher only in order to be a happily published writer. It takes too much time and effort to publish someone else’s books, time I’d rather invest in writing and releasing more of my own.

  9. Ja8877 says:

    Yes, I have read of a publisher using the M (monopoly) word in regard to Amazon. I think you are doing great Robert, keep up the great work.

    Yet I do think that it is a big world and plenty of room for Trad Pubs, Small Press and Independents to do well. The former has to publish and sell on a large scale to pay for their overhead, while the later is more like a guerilla platoon living off the land and able to publish and sell less and earn more.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for the well-wishing. And I agree with you: Let a hundred flowers bloom. We can have all kinds of publishing options, and I don’t fault anyone for trying any of them. As a confirmed Vigilante Author, I’ve made my choice; but as I have said, if a big house came along with “life-changing money,” it would get my attention. IF the other contract terms weren’t deal-killers for me.

  10. Jon Olson says:

    Nice post. You really have a great description and cover, and to get $3.99 with such a great ranking! It’s setting a new template — it’s not always true that the best way to better sales is just posting more books.

    Jon Olson

    • Anonymous says:

      Jon, I guess I’m a “vigilante” even among the “vigilantes.”

      I decided ahead of time–and it was a gut decision–that $3.99 would not be prohibitive to the book’s success. Not when major authors are commanding two or three times that amount, and selling truckloads of books. I certainly didn’t think that any reader prepared to pay $2.99 wouldn’t pay $3.99, if he thought the book would be good. And I felt: Why should I have to sell 25% more books to make the same income?

      And why should I race to the bottom and price at 99 cents, signaling to all the savvy readers out there that “THIS IS A SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK, SO DON’T EXPECT MUCH”? My market isn’t the bargain-hunter looking for any old book to read, and willing to pay 99 cents, tops. It’s the die-hard thriller and romantic suspense fans, who have lofty expectations set by the stellar works of great suspense writers. Well, I took my time to do a good job. And now “HUNTER” is selling at levels comparable to a lot of those other titles–no, not the just-published titles, but great, classic backlist titles by names like Clancy, Cussler, Flynn, DeMille, Hunter, Archer, Follett, Silva, et al.

      Also, I thought long and hard about whether to just keep cranking out more books rapidly, or to take my time to really polish what I was publishing–then to promote it to the hilt. “HUNTER” is the product of nearly three years of work. The background research, settings, devious plotting, and complex character relationships took a long, long time to work out. And I think it shows in the final product. It’s the hardest writing project I’ve ever done in my life.

      Until, of course, I write the next one. (Which I’ll start to do shortly.) Because I think “HUNTER” has set expectations among my readers for another similarly serpentine plot with a fast pace, vivid action scenes, colorful and conflicting characters rendered with psychological subtlety, PLUS “big ideas.” In other words, it’s going to be a tough act to follow, and I won’t be able to knock it out in a month or two. But however long it takes, I want readers to say, “This sequel was worth the wait.”

      So, you’re right, Jon: I’m setting a new template for indie novels. I’m aiming for more deliberately crafted work, polished like those from the Big 6, and issued at a pace that doesn’t impinge on quality. And also not priced in the bargain basement. If “HUNTER” slides into the Amazon Top 100 bestseller list and stays put, I think that will be proof that my career approach is at least as valid as is cranking out six or seven far simpler potboilers per year.

      Now, let me be clear: I have nothing against that other strategy, nor do I mean to slight those authors in any way. They are terrific writers who are bringing entertainment to a multitude of readers. It’s just that my head doesn’t work that way. And if my way succeeds, perhaps my example will encourage other like-minded writers.

  11. ToniD says:

    Good post, good points made with the facts and figures to back up your success story.

    I put up my first Indie book about the same time you did, and I must say I’ve been watching your progress with respect. Well done.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks, Toni. The great thing about this is that it’s no foot race. No comparisons apply among authors and the routes they have chosen. We each find our own way, our our own pace. And the beauty is that our books, once finished and launched, will NEVER disappear. They’ll be around forever to find their readers. And they will ALL have readers, over time.

      I’ve been trying to learn from the pioneers in indie publishing and apply their lessons–IF applicable to my goals and priorities. That’s a big “if.” We shouldn’t mindlessly ape each other’s strategies, because “form follows function.” By which I mean: strategy should follow purpose. What I’m doing is not necessarily right for somebody with different goals. What Joe Konrath or Dean Wesley Smith do is not necessarily right for me. We should think about what we want to accomplish, then pick as appropriate from among the techniques and policies of successful indie authors.

      I’ll be posting a lot more about that in the future, in between features about authors I admire.

      • Brian Kung says:

        What goals and priorities might preclude indie publishing (or whatever Amazon imprints are) from being used as a vehicle for sales and marketing?

        • Anonymous says:

          If I understand your question, Brian, you’re asking, “When would indie publishing NOT be a better deal than traditional publishing?” Here are some scenarios. (Let’s leave Amazon out of the question, because their new imprints are meant to be closer to traditional publishing, but offering authors much better contractual terms. Personally, I’d give very serious consideration to any offer from Amazon to publish my work.)

          Suppose that you are an aging writer, like me. You don’t have decades ahead of you to reap financial rewards. So if an Establishment publisher came along and offered a huge advance, a reasonable writer might be tempted to take the money and run, forgetting about the future ebook royalties and subsidiary rights he was trading away.

          Or: A writer could be in a very tough financial position. Accepting immediate “life-changing” cash — even if in exchange for his long-term royalties and rights — might be a valid choice, too, in those circumstances.

          But generally, I believe that for most writers, traditional publishing deals are lousy deals. They require a writer to surrender valuable intellectual property and potentially huge future earnings, and to settle for terrible royalties, in exchange for pathetic advances and dubious marketing.

          Take just one statistical comparison. Both traditionally published authors and “vigilantes,” like me, sell their ebooks through online distributors like Amazon. Amazon usually takes a 30% share of the retail price (for all ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99).

          That means 70% is left for the traditional publisher, agent, and author to split. After the publisher takes its cut, the author and agent typically are left with just 17.5% of the retail price. After paying his agent, the author is usually left with just 14.9% of the retail price. Let’s say the book is priced at $9.99. Do the math: The author earns less than $1.50 per sale. Amazon and his publisher make out far better than he does.

          But I’m an indie author, and I don’t have to split that 70% with anyone. If I priced my ebook at $9.99, I could pocket nearly $7.00. Even by selling my book at only $3.99, I can keep (after various expenses) about $2.70.

          In other words, I can sell my book at a fraction of the price that James Patterson or Tom Clancy does, and STILL make much more money per sale.

          So, since “ebooks are forever,” any author whose ebook will sell well over the years will lose an incredible amount of future income if he accepts a traditional publisher’s contract terms. Most authors are much better off by “going vigilante,” and focusing their own sales efforts on the rapidly growing ebook market. Which is what I’m doing.

          Which is also why it would take “life-changing money” for me to accept a traditional publishing deal, even at my age.

  12. Brian Kung says:

    And you use Disqus too. Beautiful! Consider me subscribed. Looking forward to further entries.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks, Brian. Credit my web designer, Joshua Zader, for Disqus. He knows all the good stuff like this, about which I’m ignorant.

  13. Pingback: Kindle woes, more nomenclatura, the resurrection of the gothic and the usual gloom and doom | Pegasus Pulp

  14. Helen Hanson says:

    Great-looking site.

    I love numbers. Unlike the rest of us, they never lie.

    All the best!

    Helen

    • Anonymous says:

      So nice of you to drop by, Helen, and thank you for the compliment and well-wishing. Best wishes right back at you regarding your own writing and publishing efforts.

  15. Helen Hanson says:

    psst. you need a social plugin for wordpress so we can send your links to digg, google buzz, et cetera

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