Why is there so much conflicting advice coming from indie-published authors? 

It’s because indie authors are as different as gymnasts, football players, and swimmers. 

Football players benefit from being big, while gymnasts benefit from being small. Increased lung capacity could help a football player, but for a swimmer, it’s vital. If a swimmer took sports advice from a gymnast, the swimmer would train in the wrong direction.

I’ve worked with indie authors for over a decade, and so far, I have found seven completely different approaches to indie publishing. 

In this article, we’ll explore each approach. We’ll discover how to make each one work, and we’ll uncover the common mistakes each kind of author should avoid. 

Once you examine the different approaches to indie publishing, you will understand why certain tactics do or don’t work for you. You’ll be much less confused when you hear indie authors recommending “bulletproof” strategies that haven’t worked for you.

To be fair, these aren’t the only approaches to indie publishing. If you know of another distinct indie author category, please let us know at AuthorMedia.social, my new social network specifically for authors.  

Let’s meet the indie authors!

#1 The Guru

The Guru writes nonfiction related to his professional field. He publishes books for three reasons:

  • To get more speaking engagements
  • To have a product to sell after speaking
  • To help him gain more clients

Of the seven kinds of indie authors, the Guru is the most likely to have a blog, podcast, or YouTube channel.  

The Guru is not terribly concerned about whether the books make him money as long as they help generate income in other ways. In other words, his books can generate income indirectly instead of directly. The Guru is not typically concerned about selling a lot of copies as long as the right people are buying his book.  

He doesn’t aim for fame or a large readership. His book is a business card, and he is primarily concerned with putting his book in the hands of potential clients and influencers in his field.

The Guru is the longest-standing indie author on this list. The tradition of Guru self-publishing has been around for decades. 

Where They Publish and Sell

The Guru typically publishes through Amazon KDP and sells books at the back of the room after he speaks. The Guru also hands out a lot of copies of his book. Since the book is his business card, he tends to think of it as a paperback and primarily sells paperbacks rather than ebooks.

While the Guru lists his book on Amazon, he doesn’t rely on Amazon to drive sales. He relies on customers and clients in the real world to spread the word about his book.

How They Promote Their Books

Gurus have a long list of tactics that can work for them. 

  • Hand out copies at networking events 
  • Give copies to potential clients
  • Sell books in person at speaking events 
  • Give media interviews to drive online sales
  • Buy advertising 
  • Run book launches
  • Conduct email marketing campaigns

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Overly dense back cover copy. Don’t compress 20 years of expertise and industry jargon into your back cover copy. Pay a professional copywriter to do it for you.
  • Skip developmental edits. The curse of knowledge causes you to forget what it was like before you learned it all. A developmental editor will edit your book for clarity and ensure your target reader will be able to understand it.
  • Use a weak cover. Pay a professional cover designer who is familiar with your industry or at least willing to learn about symbols and imagery understood by the people you serve.
  • Write a book that is too long or too short. Aim to make your book 200-250 pages long. At that length, you’ll be able to price it competitively and optimize your profit margins.

Tips for Success

  • Spend your money on a great book cover. You can make money on a nonfiction book with a great cover even if people don’t read it. A bad cover, on the other hand, will make it harder to get speaking gigs. Since your book functions as a business card, a cheap cover can torpedo your career. 
  • Consider using a photo of yourself on the cover of at least one of your books. A cover featuring your face has nice branding and name-recognition benefits for your career in the long term. 
  • Consider advertising your book on podcasts. Most Gurus don’t think to buy advertising on podcasts related to their topic, and they miss a great opportunity in an uncrowded space.
  • Record an audiobook. You may be the only Guru in your industry willing to pay for the production of an audiobook, and therefore the only Guru with a product worth advertising on a podcast. Your audiobook will be the perfect product to advertise on podcasts.
  • Experiment with Amazon advertising. Spend a few hundred dollars on training and ads and find out what works best for your book and your audience. 

#2 The Pro Indie

The Pro Indie usually writes genre fiction like romance or sci-fi. She writes in order to pay the bills and support her family. For the Pro Indie, the books themselves must cover the cost of publishing and generate an income for the writer. 

Since her focus is on the financial bottom line, the Pro Indie is the most mathematically sophisticated author on this list. 

The Sell More Books Show and the 20 Books to 50k community serve the Pro Indie author well. These authors write one book after another, and they are often releasing several books per year.

Where They Publish and Sell

 The Pro Indie relies on Amazon for nearly everything. They find readers, sell books, and distribute through Amazon or one of their affiliated channels. Most Pro Indies get 80% or more of their revenue from one Amazon company or another and make hundreds of thousands of dollars from Amazon, Audible, Kindle, or Kindle Unlimited.

Pro Indies also make most of their money by selling ebooks rather than paperbacks. They also make a lot more money through Kindle Unlimited rentals and audiobooks. Pro Indies sometimes hesitate to publish a paperback because it generates such a small percentage of their revenue. However, since publishing a paperback is so easy, most authors make it available for readers even though it’s not a huge source of income.

The Pro Indie and the Guru use Amazon KDP to print their books, but they do so for different reasons. For the Guru, KDP is the cheapest and best place to get paperbacks made, but they sell them in person on site. For the Pro Indie, Amazon KDP is the means (publication) and the end (distribution). 

How They Promote Their Books

I love working with Pro Indies because they are very data-driven in their marketing. They watch the numbers closely, and they are the most likely to use a spreadsheet to track sales. Pro Indies know the read-through rate for their books in KU. She can tell you off the top of her head what kind of click-through rate she’s getting on her Facebook ads. 

Popular Tactics for Pro Indies include the following:

  • Price Pulsing and Free Pulsing backlist books through BookBub and other promo sites.
  • Amazon ads
  • Facebook ads
  • BookSweeps giveaways
  • Story Origin list exchanges
  • Book launches
  • Launch teams
  • Email marketing campaigns

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Rapid-releasing too early in one’s career. Don’t rapid release until you learn to rapid-write.
  • Holding books back to rapid-release later. Each book deserves its day in the sun so that it has time to generate profit without competing with the next release. Holding books back robs you of valuable reader feedback and income.
  • Not writing to market. Pro Indies only make this mistake early in their careers. They quickly learn to start writing with their reader in mind. To write the kinds of books readers want to read, you need to write what they already like to read.

Pro Indies are generally well-educated about the indie publishing process and make fewer mistakes than other authors. The mistakes they do make, however, are often unique to their individual situations.

Tips for Success

  • Which tax deductions authors can claim
  • How to create a business plan
  • How to make a living as an author
  • How to be a business in the eyes of the IRS 
  • How, when, and why to form an LLC 
  • How to reduce the likelihood of being audited by the IRS
  • And more

#3 The Backlist Reviver

The Backlist Reviver didn’t set out to write indie books. She writes traditionally published books, some of which have gone out of print during her long career. The Backlist Reviver has bought back the rights on her older books. She republishes her older books independently through KDP to make a little extra money and see if this “indie thing” is right for her. 

Where They Publish and Sell

The Backlist Reviver is mainly focused on writing her new traditionally published books, but she knows some of her readers want to buy her backlist books, which are no longer in print.

The Backlist Reviver doesn’t view herself as an indie publisher, and for that reason, she is at risk of being swindled by “full-service book publishing” companies. She’s used to having another company (like her traditional publisher) do all the technical legwork required. If she has not educated herself on indie publishing, the expensive proposed agreement from the “full-service publishing company” may sound reasonable, and she may spend a lot of money unnecessarily.

Since the author’s books have already been published, most of the editing, design, and layout work has already been done! She already has the necessary files. It only takes a few hours to learn how KDP works and publish her books on her own. If she learns to use KDP, she will save thousands of dollars.

The Backlist Reviver makes nearly all her money from ebook sales. Since her books were previously published, there tend to be many used copies for sale on Amazon. It’s hard to sell new POD books when dozens of used paper copies sell for a few dollars each. It’s also hard to sell a $3.99 ebook when a used paperback is available for $0.99.

These used copies can hinder all her sales since she is competing against herself.

How They Promote Their Books

The Backlist Reviver promotes the backlist of republished indie books by writing a new, amazing, traditionally published book. The goal is for the new traditionally published book to create a wake large enough to carry the indie-published backlist in the current. 

Backlist Revivers rarely promote their indie books because they are focused on writing their next new book for a traditional publisher. However, they do typically send out an email or two when the old book is “available again” on Amazon. 

Backlist Revivers would reap many benefits from price-pulsing and free-pulsing on BookBub, but they rarely take advantage of those tools because they are focused on writing and releasing new books.

Chris Fox’s relaunch method would work well for a Backlist Reviver.

I find it hard to work with Backlist Revivers because they have difficulty adapting their thinking to indie publishing, and they aren’t very teachable.  

If you’re a Backlist Reviver, you must admit that indie publishing differs from traditional publishing. Some of what you learned in traditional publishing still holds true, but not everything does. Learn to respect the indie publishing industry, the skill it requires, and the authors who make it work well. 

Successful indie authors have much to teach Backlist Revivers, but the Backlist Revivers must be willing to do the work. Just because you’re a good basketball player doesn’t mean you’ll be a good baseball player. You must work to learn the skills required for baseball.

Still, a Backlist Reviver can make a lot of money in indie publishing if they are willing to educate themselves about the process, respect the method, and learn how to use a spreadsheet. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Refusing to learn how to self-publish a book. Save money and heartache by educating yourself.
  • Using mediocre book covers. The Backlist Reviver bought back the rights to her book, but she may not have rights to the original cover. Spend the time and money to get a professionally designed, up-to-date cover.
  • Having messy metadata. When the traditional publisher hands over the metadata to the Backlist Reviver, she needs to learn what it is and how to manage it. If she doesn’t, her book will be hard to find on Amazon. (Learn how to tidy your metadata.)
  • Hiring cheap help and choosing the easiest path. These mistakes invariably lead to trouble.

Tips for Success

  • Indie-publish one backlist book. Choose one book from your backlist and work through the entire indie publishing process yourself. Click every button yourself. You will be shocked at how easy it can be. 
  • Hire a mentor to coach you. A more experienced indie author can walk you through the process over Zoom if you need them to. When you click every button yourself, you will see how the process works. Your experience will protect you from the companies that prey on busy, uninformed authors.
  • Hire a Virtual Assistant. A VA can manage your BookBub submissions and price pulses. Hiring a good VA will more than pay for itself through backlist sales. Besides, when you hire someone, you create a job and improve the world. I’m a big fan of hiring help. 
  • Experiment with Amazon advertising. Effective amazon ads may help drive sales to your traditionally published books too. Not all publishers are good at running Amazon ads. Even the publishers who know what they’re doing may not be advertising your books. Educate yourself and experiment with advertising. If you’re just getting started, I recommend Chris Fox’s course, Ads for Authors Who Hate Math (Affiliate Link).

#4 The Hybrid

The Hybrid publishes independently and traditionally. Sometimes the nonfiction books are traditionally published, and the fiction is indie published or vice versa. Sometimes the Hybrid author writes one of each genre every year. 

Most authors who call themselves Hybrids are actually Backlist Revivers.

True Hybrids often have difficulty getting along with their agents. Most authors love their agents, but Hybrids don’t. (See Tips for Success below). 

Where They Publish and Sell

The Hybrid uses Amazon KDP to publish books. She is likely to sell a higher percentage of paperback books because readers of her traditionally published books expect to read her books on paper and purchase them from bookstores. That said, Hybrids make most of their indie money through Amazon on paperbacks and ebooks.

The savvy Hybrid has access to innovative marketing tactics only available to indie authors (i.e., advertising). Advertising indie-published books will help boost sales for traditionally published books. 

How They Promote Their Books

Everything that works for a Pro Indie also works for a Hybrid. Hybrids tend to have more access to media thanks to the connections provided by their traditional publishers. Those relationships are valuable when the Hybrid is ready to promote an indie-published book. 

While Pro Indies lean heavily into various Amazon promotions, Hybrids tend to do more PR.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Getting pushed around by an agent
  • Getting pushed around by a publisher

Hybrids often have conflict with their agent because the agent has a conflict of interest. An agent only gets paid when an author writes a traditional book. Since the agent doesn’t make money on the indie books, they see those books as competition. The agent may coach the author through the process, but the agent doesn’t make a dime. Therefore, they tend to nudge clients toward traditional publishing deals.

Publishers don’t like their authors to publish independently because once that author tastes the indie financial margins, they may not come back. Traditional publishers often include contract clauses that forbid authors from publishing independently.

Tips for Success

  • Don’t sign any traditional contract that limits your indie publishing! 
  • Learn to say “no” to your agent. If you feel like your agent is working against you and for your publisher, find a different agent.
  • Find an indie-friendly agent. Most agents pretend to be indie-friendly, but it is hard to find a truly indie-friendly agent for a Hybrid author. You’ll do well to educate yourself on the art of negotiation. I recommend reading a book called Never Split the Difference: Negotiating Like Your Life Depends on It (Affiliate Link).
  • Invest in training on advertising. I recommend starting with Chris Fox’s course Ads for Authors Who Hate Math (Affiliate Link). 

#5 The Homeschooler

The Homeschooler indie author writes fiction, nonfiction, or both for the homeschool market. The genre isn’t as important as the audience. 

The homeschool community is a large audience. Between 2 and 3 million students are homeschooled in America. If their parents spend $1,000 per student on books and curriculum each year, that means homeschooling Americans spend 2-3 billion dollars on books. That’s a very conservative estimate. The real number is likely 4-5 billion dollars. 

Paperback books are often the core element of the homeschooling family’s curriculum. They are not a mere supplement. Homeschooling parents often use paperbacks to teach history and social sciences.

The Homeschooler author can make tens of thousands of dollars at a single homeschool event. Collectively, Homeschooler indie authors make millions of dollars every year, but industry professionals often overlook these sales. Conferences book sales are not tracked by publishing industry groups like NPD BookScan because the transaction takes place in person with cash.

Where They Publish and Sell

The Homeschooler indie author takes a completely different approach to publishing and selling books. I work with a few Homeschooler indie authors, but most of my coaching clients fall into the Pro Indie or Guru categories.

However, I recently attended a homeschool convention and surveyed the authors who were there. I had some fascinating and deep conversations. 

Only a few authors published through KDP. Most of them had printed their books through offset printing. That means they print quantities of at least 500 books at a time, and they store them in their garages. 

You may have heard me say that offset printing is a bad strategy, and for Guru’s and Pro Indies, it generally is. 

Offset printing works for the Homeschooler because they sell most books in person at homeschool book fairs. They load their Ford Transits with books and drive halfway across the country for conventions. 

To give you an idea of the size of this market, Ford advertises the Ford Transit at homeschool events, and it has a photo of a homeschool family on the Ford Transit website. 

If you have never been to a homeschool book fair, it is a bit like a gun show. An entire ecosystem of buyers and sellers only do business at homeschool book fairs. Retailers you have never heard of sell books to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, but you can only find these retailers at homeschool book fairs. 

For most Homeschool authors, Amazon is an afterthought. In many ways, the homeschool author is the photo negative of the Pro Indie, and yet they can both make enough money to support their families.

How much do they make?

  • Traditionally Published Author: $.80 per copy sold.
  • Pro Indie selling through Amazon: $2 – $5 per copy sold.
  • Homeschool Author: $8 – $15 per copy sold.

The Homeschooler makes the retail profit and the royalty. They still have the expense of traveling to the conventions, but they have high profit margins. That’s why they can afford to spend thousands of dollars to print thousands of copies of their own books. 

Homeschool authors are also more likely to sell books from their own websites, and some even do their own fulfillment. If you have ten children, you probably have a few who will gladly earn money packing and shipping books for you. And your children will probably charge you less than a packing and shipping company.

The homeschool community is highly suspicious of “Big Tech,” particularly Amazon. Homeschool parents and publishers have spent millions of dollars building a decentralized, real-world, in-person alternative to Amazon. 

That said, many homeschool authors use KDP and maintain Amazon pages, but only a small fraction of their sales come from Amazon. If Amazon were to cancel the Homeschooler, that author would still be able to put food on the table because they would still be selling books through their websites and conventions.

How They Promote Their Books

Homeschoolers primarily promote their books at homeschool book fairs and conventions.

Since many popular homeschool podcasts advertise products, indie authors often avail themselves of these highly targeted, perfectly suited advertising opportunities.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Ignoring Amazon. While the bulk of the profit comes from conventions, selling through Amazon will still generate some income.
  • Having weak book covers. The Homeschool indie author can get away with a weak cover since their books are mainly sold by hand in person. But to make money in the homeschool market, you need retailers to sell your books. Inclusion in those retail catalogs requires good covers.

Tips for Success

  • Join the homeschool community without judgment. If you believe they’re a bunch of right-winged nut jobs, they will sense your disdain, and you won’t do well.
  • Speak at homeschool events from the stage. Speakers may get a book table for free, and speaking will drastically increase traffic to your book table. 
  • Teach about writing. Many kids and parents in the homeschool community have hopes and dreams of writing a novel. A homeschool convention is one place where novelists can sell their stories and teach about the craft of fiction writing.

#6 The CEO

The CEO is too busy and important to write a book, but his marketing team convinced him that a book would help build the company’s brand. So, he hires a ghostwriting firm to write, edit, and publish the book for him. Ghostwriting companies often charge between $25,000 and $250,000 to publish the CEO’s book. The crazy part is that the huge chunk of money may be a good investment! 

The CEO’s company marketing budget funds the writing and publishing. It’s considered a marketing expense, and the expenditure can have a big ROI for the company. For a company that spends millions per year on Google, Facebook, Radio, and TV marketing, it’s not hard to budget $250,000 for a high-quality book about the CEO. 

Many companies spend $250,000 to publish a free catalog. If they can publish a saleable book for the same price, it makes sense. If the company is a retail chain that sells the book at the register, they’re likely to profit on that seemingly huge expenditure. The CEOs of Starbucks, Dollar General, and My Pillow have all published a book.

Unlike the Guru, whose book is an extension of his speaking, the CEO views his book as an extension of the business. While the Guru may end up having many books published, the CEO typically publishes only one.

The CEO has a large team at his company to help publish the book, while the Guru is usually a solo entrepreneur or has a very small team. Publishing companies that serve CEOs well often target Gurus who can’t afford their services. 

Where They Publish and Sell

The publishing is often handled by the ghostwriting company they hired. Books are sold mostly on Amazon and handed out in person.

How They Promote Their Books

The promotion is handled by a cross-functional team of stakeholders in the CEO’s company, the ghostwriting company, and a PR firm. Not surprisingly, it’s expensive. Each company must be paid. 

Free copies are often sent to clients, given away in waiting rooms, and sold near the checkout if the company has a storefront. 

The book is also bundled into other various promotions for the company or handed out for free at industry trade shows.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Not reviewing the ghostwritten rough draft.  
  • Giving slow feedback to editors and collaborators. 

 Of the authors in this list, the CEO cares the least about his book. He didn’t write it or spend his own money on it. It may not have been his idea to publish the book. Regardless, the ghostwriter still needs his input and approval to move the project forward. 

Tips for Success

  • Be responsive and involved in the process. Return emails from your ghostwriter, read the drafts, and give your feedback or approval promptly.
  • If you haven’t yet signed a contract with a ghostwriting firm, consider spending some money and time to learn how to walk the Guru path instead. It is much cheaper, and you may end up with a better book because it comes from you rather than a ghostwriter.

#7 The Novice

You can spot the Novice because they tend to think they are special, the rules don’t apply to them, and the first full-length book they wrote is a masterpiece. You regularly find Novices in the memoir genre. Often, the Novice has survived a painful experience, and they want to write a book about it. 

The Novice has many hard lessons ahead, and she will learn those lessons the hard way by making lots of expensive and public mistakes that give other indie authors a bad name. When people talk about poorly written, low-quality, self-published books, they’re typically referring to books self-published by the Novice.

When I meet the Novice in real life, they often tell me, “God is calling me to write this book!” 

 I caution them that when God calls you to write a book, he is not necessarily calling you to publish that book. He may want to do something in your heart as you write. I meet many authors who feel God has called them to write a book, but I meet very few authors who feel God has called them to publish a book. 

Where They Publish & Sell Books

A company called Author Solutions specifically preys on the Novice indie who wants to be published.

The company goes by many names:

  • Westbow Press
  • iUniverse
  • Xlibris
  • Archway
  • Balboa
  • LifeRich
  • And others

They prey on the Novice by paying pushy salespeople to tell the Novice everything she already believes about herself and her book. 

  • “You are special!”
  • “Your book is amazing!”
  • “This will be the next big thing!”

This sales pitch works because it’s what the Novice wants to hear and secretly already believes.  

So how does the Novice sell books? She doesn’t. Or at least she doesn’t sell many. She published a book that was not ready for an audience she didn’t know how to find with a company that doesn’t care about her. Failure is the expected outcome. 

It costs some indie authors $10,000-$20,000 to learn the truth about an Author Solutions company or one of their competitors. If the Novice had spent a few weeks binging the free Novel Marketing podcast, she would have known how to avoid the whole debacle.

How They Promote Their Books

Publishing companies that prey on Novice authors offer marketing packages for an additional fee. The salespeople try to upsell the author by making it sound like the company will do loads of marketing work. These “marketing packages” are very expensive and accomplish very little.

In reality, the company simply writes a press release, makes a webpage from a WordPress template, prints some bookmarks, posts a whole lot of nothing on social media, and charges The Novice thousands of dollars for it. 

In my opinion, it’s almost criminal. I don’t want you to be a victim.

When a Novice buys these “services,” they struggle to price their book competitively. 

  • Pro Indies receive a 70% royalty on a book published through KDP.
  • The Novice receives roughly a 35% royalty on a book published by Westbow.

There is rarely enough margin for the author to advertise profitably.

Since the author is not the actual publisher, and since they’re not using Amazon KDP to publish, they don’t have access to Amazon ads. They can buy other ads with BookBub or Facebook, but those ads are unlikely to be profitable.

Authors who contract with Author Solutions or one of their many copycat competitors have almost no options for book promotion.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Publishing the first book first. One of the book marketing commandments warns against it. Your first book is for therapy and developing your craft. It’s rarely for immediate publication.
  • Getting rushed by pushy salespeople.
  • Feeling rushed because of age. Authors in their last decades of life sometimes feel pressure to publish quickly. But shortcuts tend to reduce the quality and reach of their book. Professional results require time and money.
  • Assuming indie publishing is harder than it is. Indie publishing easier than you think, and there are many indie authors just a few steps ahead of you who can help answer your questions or walk you through rough spots.
  • Not investing in training or education. Free training is available on the Novel Marketing podcast. Many of my podcast guests have their own podcasts as well.

Tips for Success

  • Finish your first book. Then put it aside to work on your second book. Trust me. Don’t publish your first book first.
  • Invest in yourself before you invest in your book. You can probably write more than one book. Investing in yourself and your craft will be an investment in the quality of all your future books.
  • Listen to podcasts like Novel Marketing. Listen to the episodes that you think don’t apply to you. You’ll be surprised by what you learn.
  • Read books and take courses on writing, publishing, and marketing. Invest in yourself and your education. 

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We have three mastermind groups:

  • Authors who want to sell more copies of their books listed on Amazon. We have some Pro Indies in this group.
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  • Influencers who want to grow their influence through blogging, podcasting, and public speaking. If you want to become a profitable Guru, join our Influencers Mastermind.

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