One of the burdens shouldered by indie authors is the overhead of the business. With a traditional publishing contract, some of that overhead is mitigated.
The author isn’t asked to pay directly for cover design, layout, or distribution—though ultimately the cost of these services is factored into the royalty deal between the author and the publisher.
Having those expenses covered up front can be one advantage of going traditional. But as an independent author, all those expenses and more may fall on your shoulders alone. In this two-part series, we’ll look at some of the expenses and overhead you’ll take on for your indie author business, and those you should avoid.
First, The Unavoidable
Death. Taxes. Overhead for your author career. There are some things you just can’t avoid.
Author overhead can be a bit tricky, though, when it comes to the ‘unavoidable.’ Because for the most part, there really are no barriers to entry in this business. Anyone with access to a public library’s internet connection can write and publish for free. Whether that book becomes a success, however, comes down to pure luck unless there is an investment on the part of the author.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to a successful author business is to accept that there will always be a cost to pay. You may pay that in dollars, as we’re discussing here. Or you may pay it in time—whether that means taking the time to do all the work yourself, or enduring the time it takes for your book to reach an audience without any investment on your part. One way or another, Overhead takes her due.
In that sense, it’s easier to just think of any money you spend as a shortcut for time. If you can pay for services to be rendered, you’ll save both the time to do the work yourself and the time spent waiting for readers to look past the flaws of your book and give it a chance. Overhead may be unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to be a burden.
Let’s look at the basic services that are essential parts of author overhead.
It’s true, you can edit your work yourself. Particularly if you are skilled at copyediting—finding typos, grammar gaffs, and logical omissions in writing. If you are meticulous enough, you can certainly find and fix any errors that appear in your work.
That’s good news for many authors, who pride themselves on being savvy perfectionists. But the truth is even the keenest editing eyes among us have trouble objectively reviewing their own work.
Editing your own book can save you a few hundred dollars, but what it doesn’t save you is time. The fact is, when you edit your own work you spend more time reading and rereading and re-rereading. It can slow down the release of your book by weeks or even months. This is due to a bit of hardwiring in the human brain.
Humans are wired to look for shortcuts. Think of stereotypes: If I say ‘doctor’ or ‘nurse,’ there’s a very good chance you pictured a man first and a woman second. Never mind the fact that in our much more enlightened age women can be doctors and men can be nurses. There’s a pre-wired pattern (learned from years of cognitive bias) that makes you fall back on a stereotype in the absence of any other evidence. The stereotype is a shortcut for you brain, so that it doesn’t have to work as hard to create a mental image.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, by the way. This isn’t a point of ideological shortcoming, and you can always rewire your brain to think in a more enlightened way, if you choose. What you can’t avoid is cognitive bias. Your brain will always look for ways to shortcut processing, so that less energy is spent mentally populating an idea every time you encounter it.
The way this impacts our editing is simple: We wrote what we wrote, and we know what we meant.
When we’re reading our own work again (and again, and again) we’re often seeing our intention rather than the actual words on the page. This is how you can read the same sentence a dozen times and never realize you left out a “the” or even a noun or a verb. You have a built-in expectation of those words being there—your brain is biased to expect them so the sentence will make logical sense. As you read, your brain fires up its shortcut and inserts the missing words into the flow, even though they do not appear on the page.
You should be reading and editing your work, for sure. Every writer should spend time reading and editing and rewriting to get their work as polished as possible. But to avoid problems as described above, you should consider paying someone else to have your back.
The investment can pay off in more than fixing typos—you may discover logical errors in your work that have gone unnoticed, or you may learn you’ve been doing something one way your whole life while it was always meant to be done another way. It happens. We work in a craft that involves continuous learning. And we learn best when we’re cooperating with outside sources.
Hire an editor.
Here’s a good way to tell if you have the skills and discipline to design your own cover: No. You do not.
Ok, that may be a bit too black and white. And hypocritical—I design my own covers, after all. But I can say for certain that not every cover I’ve designed for my work has been a winner. And I’ve had numerous iterations for some covers. You might say that I came around the long and hard way on some of them, and that may have hurt me in some cases.
But the truth is that unless you have an actual design background and have paid dues in that world (much like paying dues as an author, by writing and publishing and repeating), it’s best to leave that work to someone who’s been there and done that.
Getting a good cover can be expensive, it’s true. You could pay hundreds or even thousands for a truly good design. But that cost is an indicator of just how important this is.
Consider cereal makers.
There was a time when you could put any old colorful cartoon rabbit on the outside of your box and it could be a big hit with the kids. But times changed. Tastes became more refined. Parents became more involved. So now it takes more than eye-catching color and cartoon characters to nudge a purchase. More and more our cereal boxes contain bits of data (“Just 200 calories per bowl!”) hints at their wholesomeness (“Contains only whole grains!”) and information about additional incentives (“20% discount coupon on your next purchase. Details inside.”).
The point is that cereal makers know how to use that box as a marketing tool. They understand what their customer is looking for, and how best to meet that demand.
Can you say the same for your covers? If you don’t know how to leverage your cover as one of your primary marketing tools, it’s best to pay someone who does.
Even if you happen to be skilled in pixel pushing, you may not necessarily understand the psychology of book covers. Until and less you do, don’t try this at home.
Marketing is the third most overlooked bit of overhead for authors. And the reason is, marketing is hard. And scary. And kind of gross.
At least, that’s the perception. The truth is, marketing doesn’t have to be any of those things. You can market your work in ways that are completely personal to you and your audience, and do very well.
Again, though, consider our rule of thumb: Money is a shortcut for time.
Marketing takes a lot of time. Writing guest blog posts, chatting with people on podcasts, attending conferences, writing and sending email newsletters, placing and monitoring advertisements—these are all tried and true marketing methods, and each of them costs their own allotment of time. As an author, you could easily find yourself investing far more time in the marketing than in writing and publishing. Which nobody is all that happy about.
So again, if you want to recover that time, your overhead will include spending money on marketing services.
This is one bit of overhead where it’s best to take a more hybrid model. Rather than shelling out and handing off all your marketing, you should consider a more strategic approach.
There are some forms of marketing that you may be well suited to do yourself. Maybe you’re good at writing and sending emails regularly. Or maybe you’re a natural on podcasts. Or perhaps you thrive at conferences. That’s good. Do those things. They have their own expenses and drawbacks, of course, but if they’re most effective for you then you should embrace them.
But when it comes to other marketing tools, you may not excel. Maybe you’re no good with placing and monitoring Facebook ads, for example. Or maybe you stink at keeping up with your newsletter or social media.
For these, it’s perfectly acceptable and even advisable that you outsource the work (more on this in the next post).
Find a service that will handle building your mailing list on your behalf. Find someone who will keep up with social media for you. Find someone who loves to keep the plates spinning for digital advertising. Work with them, create a marketing budget, and let them take the work off your shoulders.
This can get expensive, it’s true. And sometimes you just can’t afford it. You’ll have to do a lot of it yourself, and that’s ok, too. It comes with its own benefit.
Doing the work yourself allows you to appreciate and understand it better. You’ll know exactly what it takes to get what you need, because you’ve done it. You’ll understand the value of it, too, so that when you can afford to pay for these services you’ll know you’re getting something worth the additional overhead.
There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Sometimes running a business means putting in a lot of sweat equity up front, until you can afford to outsource it.
There are plenty of unavoidable expenses in this business. You’ll always have some sort of overhead. The best approach to reducing that overhead is to always keep our rule of thumb in mind. If you must pay for something out of pocket, make sure you’re making an equitable trade of money for time. If your money isn’t reclaiming time, then it isn’t being well spent.
Part two of this series will look at how to avoid predatory practices and expenses.