There’s no shortage of things to fret about as a self-publisher. You’re the captain of the ship, but that’s both good news and bad.
Because while everything about your success or failure is ultimately up to you, everything about your success or failure is ultimately up to you. Nobody will help you out unless you’re partners or are paying them. Nobody will automatically be in your corner. Nobody will shake the pom-poms for you.
If you were traditionally published, you might not get a ton of promotion, but at least you’d get placement, in a few places, for a while. Even though the publisher might barely know you exist within their huge catalog, you’d at least be there, and your success would be their success. At least someone else would have a reason for you to succeed. But as an indie? You’re on your own, baby.
The responsibility that comes with indie publishing can feel overwhelming. It’s not just that you could trip and fall. You could also fail to keep an eye on everything you should. You could forget about something, position yourself incorrectly, or generally be blindsided by something you hadn’t thought to watch out for. You might feel like a plate-spinner, trying to keep too much in the air lest something fall and shatter.
It’s true that there’s a lot to keep an eye on when you’re an indie, and there are certainly many tasks you’ll need to manage. But there are also plenty of things that indies worry about that probably aren’t worth your mental bandwidth. Here are some of the things you can likely stop worrying about, and instead spend that recovered time writing.
Picking the Right Genre (Or Even *A* Genre)
Convention says that writers should pick a genre — thrillers, horror, romance, maybe generalized literature — and stick with it. The thinking makes sense; it’s based on satisfying readers of your current work by giving them more of what they already like.
This is an extremely personal decision, though. Some people like to write in a single genre, living forever in their favorite tropes and reader expectations. That’s totally fine, and many authors find success that way. But what if you like to write more than one thing? What if your purest creative soul begs to be allowed to write romance AND horror? Then sticking to a single genre would mean basing your art on a marketing decision (writing something profitable over something you wanted to write more); it would rob writing of its fun because you love variety and value freedom more than anything; it would be a stupid long-term decision seeing as you don’t want to be tied down to a single genre for the rest of your creative career.
There are three main concerns with genre-hopping. The first is the idea of satisfying readers by giving them more of what they already like. There are people who only really like one type of book, and if you have some of those people in your audience, they may not feel satisfied enough by your output in one genre and may therefore go elsewhere. While that can be true, that concern mostly fades for people who produce at volume. If you only write one or two books a year, hopping genres will indeed leave some readers wanting because they’ll have to wait a few years between their ideal reads. But if you produce over a million words a year — a large book each month or three to four novellas a month — you don’t have this problem. High-producing writers don’t have to pick one genre or another. They can do one genre and another.
Critics also say it’s confusing to readers. If your brand doesn’t stand for a tightly focused style of work, how will readers know what to expect from you?
First of all, readers are smarter than that. Maybe there are readers who would see your book with a gunslinger riding a unicorn on the cover, with a product description that describes it as, "Harry Potter without wizards but with gunslingers, talking unicorns, epic fights, and more turkey pie,” and think it was a romance novel set in Bangkok in the 17th century. But if there are, they’re not in your group of ideal readers — and confusing them doesn’t matter.
But there’s another thing: You know that expression “The only constant is change,” which is all ninja-like in positioning the antithesis of “constant” as a constant? Well, does no one consider that there might be readers out there whose genre is a lack of genre? It’s certainly true of a lot of people; the shelf across from me right now includes Fight Club, House of Leaves, Catch-22, the Harry Potter novels, and a fantastic young adult sci-fi romance called Everyday. There are a lot of readers whose genre is “books they think are awesome,” and those are the people genre-hopping writers are most likely to attract. Maybe they won’t love every book you write, but they also won’t automatically dismiss one (or be confused by it, furrowing their Neanderthal brows in a vain attempt to understand) simply because it has nanobots instead of unicorns.
The final argument against genre-hopping is about discoverability. In a physical bookstore, it’s true that proper genre shelving mattered, because you wanted people looking for romance books in the romance section to see your book. It’s similarly true that if you wrote a sci-fi novel after writing dozens of romances, even your most loyal readers would never see it because it wouldn’t be shelved with your other books. But in online bookstores — especially for writers who have their own mailing lists — this problem disappears. Thanks to various recommendation lists (“You might enjoy these books,” “Customers who bought this book also bought these books”), cross-genre books will be “shelved” next to one another if enough people have bought them both — and, if you cultivate a list of people who like to read across genres, you can inform them of both titles to make that happen. Your own books will also all be shelved together permanently. If someone wants to see your other work, all they have to do is click on your name and get the lot.
Not everyone can be defined by a single label. If you want to write across multiple genres, do it, and find your ideal readers who are equally unwilling to be defined by their genre.
Protecting Your Copyright
Your work has a copyright the minute you’ve written it. It’s automatic and requires no effort. So, what we’re really talking about here isn’t protecting your work. We’re talking about the way most writers sweat the issue of copyright, which is going to all sorts of extra lengths to register and reinforce it. I’m not suggesting you’re not protected; I’m simply arguing that taking those extra steps are not worth the time you should spend writing.
Out of all the work out there to be stolen and infringed upon, do you really think that yours is going to be the one some poacher steals? Oh, you know someone it happened to? Did the poacher turn your buddy’s work into a blockbuster and cost them a ton of money? Or was it just some random asshole?
If your copyright is somehow infringed and turned into a huge breakout hit, don’t you think whatever it would cost you to get your fair share of that huge breakout hit would make it worthwhile?
Of course, copyrights are infringed upon from time to time. So what? Once you get your sense of artistic indignation out of the way, what harm was really done? The chances of someone doing something terrible to your rights are so incredibly remote that in our opinion it’s simply not worth the expense, hassle, or mental space to consider. It could happen, but you could also be hit by a bus. Does that mean you shouldn’t cross the street?
People sweat piracy as much as they sweat copyright, but obscurity is a far bigger issue. You’ll never stop piracy. You can try, but before you do, try calling the film, music, and porn industries and ask them how that strategy is working out for them. You could spend valuable hours scouring Internet file-sharing services and torrents to see if anyone is stealing your stuff, then try to stop them, but your efforts will net you a shuffle. If you’re popular, people will always share your stuff.
This might actually be a good thing. The people who read pirated books are never going to buy your work anyway; it’s a totally different audience than purchasing readers. Even if you could scrub your stuff from the Internet, you’d only be keeping your book from pirate readers. You wouldn’t convert those readers into buyers. They’d simply read something else that was free.
People staying interested in your work — even if that means stealing it — is a good thing. The more people who see your books, the more likely they are to talk about it. Money lost to piracy is almost a sensible marketing expense. The more people who are talking, the more people who will hear. Some may become buyers.
There is a lot more to come in Part 2. Stay tuned.