Most of you know by now that I don't stick to one type of publishing method or even one publisher. My books are published by several publishers both large and small, and they are also published traditionally and independently. The new digitally-based publishing model has not only become a boon to small, entrepreneur-minded individuals looking to create new indie publishing start ups, but it has literally turned upside down the method by which the old New York mega-houses have been doing business for nearly a century.
Perhaps the biggest example of an indie-minded start-up is Amazon Publishing and their many imprints (I publish with AP imprint, Thomas & Mercer). AP, however, can also be considered a traditional major publisher since it operates much the same way by offering big advances, stellar marketing, and equally stellar editing. But there are other far smaller indie publishers springing up all over the country who don't offer advances per se, but instead offer a high ebook royalty rate along with the promise of a quick draft-to-distribution publishing experience.
I've published with one or two of these "indies," and trust me when I say, not all of them are what they appear to be. An author just starting out (or even a seasoned mid-list author looking to re-establish his career) needs to have their guard up when it comes to publishing with these new outfits who might appear, on the surface anyway, to be "writer friendly" and "an alternative to the old traditional model that locks up your rights forever." These indie publishers might even invest in a nice website with false testimonials plastered all over its facade, but the outfit might truly be a rat in a sheep's clothing.
By this I mean, the indie publisher might persuade you to sign on the dotted line by dangling promises before your eyes like, "superior marketing," "a 50% ebook royalty," and even "manipulation of the Amazon algorithm system." But these are false promises delivered by shady characters who are looking for one thing and one thing only: to make a buck off of your hard work. The reality is more like this: these indie publishers will get you to sign their contracts knowing full well that they will (and I bullet here for your reading convenience) ...
--Skip out on the editing (or hire interns for no pay who are entirely incompetent)
--Make no cash investment in marketing (they will expect the author to do this...)
--Manipulate the pricing of your book entirely to suit themselves
--When your book doesn't sell, they will quickly lose interest and move on to the next victim
--And this is the big one: if your book goes on to sell very well despite the odds, they will lock up your rights forever and ever, or gladly return them to you say, in exchange for a couple hundred grand. Or, if the book is being picked up by a major, demand half your advance money plus an on-going percentage. Highway robbery? You betcha...
So what should you look for in an independent publisher?
--First thing to ask is this: what are the publisher's terms should you decide to request the rights back to your book, regardless of how it sells. Get the facts of author rights reversion clarified before you even think of signing a contract. To be honest, if you end up signing with a bad indie, it's really your own fault. I blame myself for past mistakes.
--Are the publisher royalty rates competitive?
--Ask about editing. Who are the publisher's editors and what are their credentials? Read one or two of the novels on their list and scrutinize them for mistakes.
--Talk to other authors who are publishing with the house. Do you recognize any of the names?
--Do some of the top agents work with the publisher?
--Does the publisher attend events like Bouchercon and Thrillerfest?
--Is the publisher willing to put serious cash and effort into marketing? Marketing that enhances your own efforts? Ask about a marketing plan.
--Is the publisher in fact, a wanna-be writer himself? If so, this could actually be a conflict of interests since the would-be author will always take care of himself first and foremost. I know of several indie imprints being run by established authors. Some are well run establishments. Others are traps designed to lock up your rights.
--Has the publisher experienced a mass exodus of writers who feel they've been lied to or even shafted? Do writers sign with the publisher only to realize they've been snared into said trap, and then fight to get the hell out?
There are of course other things you will need to watch out for, like detailed royalty reports for instance. Anything less is criminal and reeks of underhandedness. Demand a sample royalty report upfront prior to signing.
Bottom line is this: If you're going to publish with an indie publisher, make certain they are as reputable as one of the big publishers. Your best bet is to engage in the publishing process via a reputable agent. Don't make the mistakes I've made by entering into some of these agreements casually, only to have been burned in the end. Again, I have myself and only myself to blame. In a word, don't drink the Kool-Aid. Better to start your own indie publishing business which publishes your own books exclusively than to give away your rights and profits to a used car salesman posing as a saint.