To Be Or Not To Be... Indie or Mainstream?

The novels we are reading here in 2019 are indistinguishable from the books published by the big (or small) mainstream publishing houses. In part, this is due to the advancements made with Print On Demand...

By Helen Hollick

I ventured into the world of being an indie writer in 2006, when my (now ex) agent let me down Big Time, and William Heinemann simultaneously dropped four of my novels. I was devastated. I spent two weeks sobbing, then dusted myself down and decided to go it alone. Self-publishing was still somewhat sneered at back then. It was seen as 'vanity’ publishing; wannabe authors who were not good enough for mainstream publishing, churning out poorly written, poorly edited (if edited at all) and poorly produced work. How things have changed!

There are still a few badly written, edited and produced indie novels, usually the result of a lack of 'how to’ research, or laziness on the author’s part - and I hold my hand up to making a mess of my first venturing into indie. It was a sharp learning curve of what not to do - although I must add that my choice of the first assisted publishing company was a poor one. (Books produced badly or not at all, royalties not paid - even the employees were, eventually, not paid and the company went bankrupt.)

Enter Helen Hart and her company SilverWood Books. Helen rode in like a knight in shining armour and saved the day, and my books, in 2011. I have had my indie books with her ever since - and intend to continue to do so.

On the whole, for the good writers who, for whatever reason, decide to be 'independent’, the novels we are reading here in 2019 are indistinguishable from the books published by the big (or small) mainstream publishing houses. In part, this is due to the advancements made with Print On Demand. But it is also kudos to companies (such as SilverWood) that undertake all the technical work involved - the formatting, the cover design, the uploading to online platforms such as Ingram, Amazon etc.

That said, no matter how often you hear an Indie Author say, 'I like being Indie because...’ (followed by a variety of reasons) in our hearts we want to be picked up by a mainstream publishing house, even a small one, as long as it has a good reputation for producing good books to a good standard.

There are pros and cons to be considered for indie v mainstream - however, as a 'hybrid’ author I have experience of both...

The process of having a novel picked up by a mainstream publisher depends on what they are looking for, how well it fits with their portfolio, how well they think it will sell, and of course, how well it is written. Add to this, most publishers only accept submissions through an agent, and finding one is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But let’s assume a publisher is interested in your book...

You may get a modest advance (apart from the top authors, the days of large advances are gone). At the publisher’s expense copy-editing will be done 'in house’, so too will the formatting, (the layout of the text) and the cover design - if you are lucky you might be consulted about the cover, but I’ve had some awful covers, and I had no say about them. Publication date, price, availability and such are set by the publisher; the production of the novel is their call, not yours. You will be expected to ensure the editing is correct, especially at proofread stage. You will be expected to submit a well-ironed manuscript. Anything with too many wrinkles will not be accepted.

You might get two weeks or one month of marketing, the rest is up to you - even mainstream authors (apart from the few in the upper-echelons of fame) have to do their share of Facebook posts, Tweets and Blogging. If the book sells well, you might be offered a contract for another book; if it doesn’t, you won’t and the book might be dropped... once the advance payment has been 'worked off’, that is. Royalties? No royalties until that advance has been repaid by sales. Which could take a while if there has been very little marketing.

As an Indie writer, you are in control of everything - literally everything if you self-publish - but even if you use an assisted company for all the technical things (the formatting, production, uploading to wholesalers and retailers etc), you are in charge. Which also means it is up to you to ensure that the editing is of a high standard, the cover is of good quality, and the final version looks and feels professional. If the book sells, from day one, the profits are yours.

As an indie author you can update your novel when and how you like, give it a make-over, offer it for 99p/c or as a giveaway, (although assisted companies may charge to do these.) A missed typo? You can get it corrected quickly. Mainstream is different. Typos remain if the publisher did a large print run, hopefully there will be corrections before a second edition is printed, which could be months, even years ahead.

As a mainstream author, you are more likely to get reviews in magazines or newspapers, because the marketing department will have established contacts with the media. But try contacting Breakfast TV as an probably won’t receive even a polite 'no thank you’. (Although local radio stations are usually pretty keen.)

The drawback with being indie is the cost - you pay for everything - and the limitation of how wide you can spread the word about your book. Indie writers like to think of ourselves as whales in a pond, but we - and the majority of mainstream authors as well - are tadpoles in the vast ocean of other books and authors. It is here that mainstream can have an advantage, and why we, as indie authors, secretly want to be with the Big Boys. Book stores, apart from the local shop in town, are not keen on taking indies. Film/TV, translation rights are hard to come by anyway, for indies, the chances are even slimmer.

Marketing is the bugbear. It takes up so much time, and how do you, as an indie author, shout out about how good your novel is without being boring or too persistent? The quickest way to get people to not buy your book is to keep on about your book!

And as an indie we pay for the privilege of getting our hard work in print, often, not expecting to make our money back. It can be expensive to be indie, and the prestige of having a mainstream publisher want to produce your book is overwhelmingly satisfying. We all want to show that we are good writers, that our books are worthwhile, and to have them picked up by a publisher who will pay to put them in print is...well, fantastic. But as I said above, there are 'buts’ and sometimes, to be in control is far better than having to grit your teeth and go along with something you don’t want.

Why the heck we do this job in the first place is the big question. It certainly isn’t for the money, so it has to be for the love of writing, and the faith we have in our, to us, very real characters!

About Helen

Helen Hollick moved from London in 2013 to an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon, where she lives with her family, horses, Exmoor ponies, dogs, cats, a donkey, chickens, ducks and geese.

First published by William Heinemann in 1994, Helen was one of the first well-known UK authors to reprint her backlist as 'indie’, in 2006. Published as mainstream in the USA, Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) the story of Saxon Queen, Emma of Normandy. Her novel Harold the King (titled I Am The Chosen King in the US) explores the events that led to the 1066 Battle of Hastings, while her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, set in the fifth century, is acclaimed as a more historical version of the Arthurian legend.

Her passion, now, is her pirate character, Captain Jesamiah Acorne of the nautical adventure series, The Sea Witch Voyages, which have recently been snapped up by US-based, independent publisher, Penmore Press. She is also published in various languages.

Helen has written three non-fiction books, Pirates: Truth and Tales (Amberley Press); Life of A Smuggler in Fact and Fiction (Pen & Sword), and as a supporter of indie writers, co-wrote with her editor, Jo Field, a short advice guide for new writers: Discovering the Diamond.

She runs the Discovering Diamonds review blog for historical fiction, is a regular Facebooker and Tweeter, and hosts a series for IndieBRAG medallion honourees on her blog, entitled, 'Novel Conversations’.

She occasionally gets time to actually write!

Twitter: @HelenHollick
Discovering Diamonds Historical Fiction Review Blog (submissions welcome):

“If you’re thinking of self-publishing, I hope you don't go at it alone. With a team like SilverWood behind you, you have the support you need to publish the best work you believe in.”

J A Higgins