Writing Discussion

My experience as an indie artist

Where’s the publishing industry headed? I don’t think anyone has answers right now. My view of self-pub vs. traditional pub is colored by my experience running an indie craft business for two years. Some of it doesn’t apply directly to writing, but there are definite parallels. Here are a few things I learned.

1) Distribution is the biggest challenge. I had a product, but how could I get it out to the most customers possible? The problem of being one of thousands of craft shops on the internet, was discoverability. Most of the visits to my shop were random at first, and in no way consistent. It was clear, that random hits to my website were not going to sustain a business. I experimented with a mix of online and offline retailing to boost my sales. I attended local craft fairs, and partnered with shops willing to carry my product line.

What I found was that shopping habits differed online and offline. What sold at craft fairs, or in store, were not the same items that sold online. The sales did not crossover like I hoped. People comfortable with fairs, and stores, were not the same customers I could reach online.

2) Price point makes a difference. It became apparent after doing some number crunching, there were two ways I was going to make money at this business: either focus on the high end market, or sell more for a lower price.

Successful shops fell in three categories. The high volume sellers: the bulk of these sold items for under $10. The high end retailers: these were specialty shops, many doing custom work, with unbelievable craftsmanship. These shops focused on doing one thing well. They could charge more, because people were willing to pay more. The originals: these were the first shops to get into the game, or to introduce a particular product (imitators followed).

2) You must understand your niche. Sales began to grow when I analyzed who was purchasing from my shop. I needed to differentiate myself somehow. I started to cater to a very specific demographic. Who was I trying to sell to? It turned out to be Jane Austen fans who were getting married. It may sound silly but I cornered a little piece of the wedding market that wasn’t being served. It sounds counter intuitive to focus on pleasing just a small number of people, but it worked.

3) The importance of a professional appearance. My shop looked awful to begin with. Even now, looking at those first product photos made me cringe. Again, I looked at the shops I liked, studied lighting, product placement, and what worked. I tried to make the shop looked as professional as I could make it, made it easy for customers to contact me, and listed as much information as I could to make it easier for customers. This resulted in wholesalers and stores contacting me directly, and my photos being featured on other websites. Appearances matter.

4) Creating a product is only a small portion of the work. It’s a business. Marketing, tracking inventory, working on SEO, blogging, tweeting, responding to customer inquiries, taking product photos, updating the website, and a thousand other little details, took up more than 70% of my time. This was the exhausting part, and also frustrating part. I really wanted to do a little less and focus more on creating new products. A clone would have come in handy here!

5) The importance of luck. It’s hard to be seen. To be fair, a lot of my early success boiled down to timing. I opened the shop during the Christmas shopping season, and got a couple of sales straight off the bat just because there were more people looking to buy. I saw other shops start up during the slow summer, and languish without sales for far longer. I was lucky more than once. My shop got noticed by Etsy admin, and so featured more than once on the front page. Pure luck.

6) The importance of networking/word of mouth. There’s no better marketing than other people vouching for your product. I ended up being featured on several websites which also upped sales. I made sure to do the same, to feature other sellers, and to become part of the artist community, which led to meeting more people and new opportunities. I never expected anything out of it, but I learned that what you give freely usually comes back. Good karma 🙂

7) Your credibility is tied to customer feedback. The trouble with being an online business is that the only assurance of quality is what other people say it is. A feedback rating was built into my shop. Thankfully all of it was ‘satisfied’ and some of it was amazing, but I’ve seen shops fail from just one or two negative ratings. Some of those ratings had nothing to do with the product, but things out of the seller’s control. Other times those negatives were wholly deserved.

A lot of weight hangs on that rating – but that’s the truth. It’s especially painful if you’ve only got a handful of sales under your belt. It can completely destroy your credibility.

8) You need more than one item in the store to make any money. 20% of your inventory generates 80% of the profit, or something close. The more products in the store, the easier it is for people to discover the shop. It also increases the likeliness random visitors would find something they liked. My top sellers were not the items I expected. Goes to show my bad taste LOL.

I don’t think one way is be better for everyone. I just hope that if you are deciding between self-publishing and traditional publishing, that you go into it with your eyes open.

Self-publishing/indie publishing success is not a quick/easy route. I know it takes a lot of work, but some people thrive in this kind of environment and enjoy the control/freedom it allows.

Are these crazy times? Exciting times? Hehe, I half expect that by the time I’m done with this manuscript, the state of the publishing industry will have changed yet again. What do you think? I haven’t made up my mind just yet.

22 Comments to “My experience as an indie artist”

  1. Yeah, that’s a lot of work to make the indie thing work. It’s pretty clear it’s not easy.

    I haven’t made up my mind, yet, either. My life-long goal has always been to get published, traditionally. I grew wary of “vanity press” publishers from a very young age. At first blush, self-e-publishing (which is a more accurate term than “indie publishing” which is more properly applied to smaller traditional publishing houses like Subterranean Press (or even smaller ones) I think) seems an awful lot like the old “vanity press”: you do all the work, there’s no editor (unless you pay for one) and so on and so forth. But there are some noticeable differences. Whereas Vanity presses never placed your book with booksellers, self-e-pubbing services are usually affiliated with an online bookseller – most noticeably Amazon.

    The big unanswered question, for me, is what the future of the ebook market really looks like versus what the future of traditional publishing contracts will look like. Are e-books really on an upward growth curve, or are they a temporary fad? I suspect we’ll see continued growth for a little while longer than an eventual tapering off as e-books hit a total market saturation point – but the whole phenomenon is still new enough that it’s impossible to predict where it will land, and there’s very little reliable data to gain a good understanding of what the probable outcomes of going it alone really are (the only real data out there that’s easily digestible relates only to the outliers, which are terrible for predictive power).

    Meanwhile… if traditional publishers are in fact demanding what amounts to a perpetual publishing license to publish e-books in perpetuity… that kills the potential income value to a writer from e-pubbling their backlist.

    So, I’m very apprehensive about where to go from here without a little more concrete information… but things are changing so fast that information is hard to come by. Eventually I’ll have to make a decision about what to do. But for now, it’s no worries, since I don’t have a current finished wip to worry about.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      Eventually, e-book sales will stabilize, but I doubt it will be for a few more years. I’m not sure how fast traditional publishing is poised to change, but it will have to.

      If I hazard a look into my crystal ball – I foresee lawsuits, and bankruptcies as the industry adjusts. As for self e-pub, I think more people will find it works for them. There will continue to be success stories, but also many people that abandon it (because it is a lot of work), and others that do it as a hobby (this was a bulk of the craft shops on Etsy – few people actually made enough money to quit their day jobs, and those that did were not living anywhere near extravagantly).

      Yes finish the writing first 🙂

  2. Man, publishing seems to be a hot topic this week!

    I’m with Stephen in wanting to go the more traditional route, as of now, but I’m always open to change and development. I feel I’m so young and new to the world in general, though, that I feel having a trusted agent to help sell my book is going to be the best option for me—even if that means seeing less earnings possibly coming back to me. I’m not in a terribly entrepreneurial mode of being at this point in my life, haha, when it comes to certain things. Still have so much to learn.

    I am always amazed by folks who start their own businesses! Thanks for sharing your insights, Theresa. 🙂

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      I am too! It requires an incredible amount of work and dedication. There’s so much to learn on the business end of things. Hehe I’m just thinking about this now as I get closer to ‘done’. Like I mentioned, I haven’t made a decision. I’m aware of the hard work it would take to go indie, and also of the challenges of trad pub at the moment.

  3. Wow. Sounds difficult. :-0 What’s ironic is that probably a lot of artists want the business to be out of the way, and just want to create…Perhaps we artists should all find “clones” (i.e. people as freaky about business as we are about art) to fill in our business sides. I dunno. Ever talked to E about being your business clone? Just an idea.

    1. Actually… I was at first going to say “But then you’d into the problem of how to failry compensate the business clone versus the original writer…” But, J.P., what you describe is more or less what an “Agent” is supposed to be: someone with business acumen and knowledge of the industry who helps the writer navigate all that stuff in order to allow the writer/creative talent to focus on what they do best: writing.

      The problem, from a writer’s perspective, is actually an issue of trust: without having that business acumen themselves, writers would be uncertain that they were getting a fair shake from their business partner. Which is why writers have built up a combination of formal and informal systems for rating the value of different agents. The other problem: in this changing media landscape, many (possibly most?) potential business partners have their experience firmly rooted in the old model, and may be unequiped to navigate the changes to the industry.

      1. T. S. Bazelli Author

        ~nods~ As an indie artist, I was yet not making enough money to afford another employee. I did consider that, and if I were to grow my business it would be a logical next step.

        Times are a changing! I’ve heard arguments on both sides about the value of agents. It’s dizzying at times.

      2. Most of the arguments I’ve been reading about Agents recently, for and against, boil down to questions related to one of the two potential problems I mentioned above versus whether its better for writers just to develop the business acumen themselves. Some just don’t trust agents… some don’t think agents understand how best to manage their careers in this new environment. Still others are making a comfortable living thanks in part to the efforts of their agents and like having the freedom to focus on writing.

        There’s pros and cons to both sides, I think.

      3. Alas, I step away for a moment, the convo takes off without me. He he 🙂

        TS, I’m suuuuuure E would’ve gladly done it for free! 😉 Ha ha, no but seriously, you’re right, since agents get about 10% profits(?), you would have to start making about a thousand dollars a week to make it worth their time—or probably at least $200. (On the way low end of the scale)

        I don’t mistrust agents, Stephen, but there’s a good chance you’re right about that authors don’t trust agents. Authors are odd people by nature…typically standoffish, and protective of their craft. It can get uncomfortable when someone else is calling the shots.

        Personally, I’d try to go along with them for the most part, unless they said something like “Cut Alistair out of the story…he serves no point.” Or something devastating like that. ([Un]fortunately, I have fallen in love with my Alistair character, in that writery sort of way, and if somebody wanted to cut him out, that would be an issue!!!!!) But if they suggested perhaps to drop a minor character, or cut down on my language, then I’d try to comprimise. I guess what some writers have an issue with is when they get so attached to their work that they can’t see straight.

        But now…

        I ramble.

      4. Now, I don’t mean to say most authors don’t trust agents – I don’t even necessarily mean to suggest that many don’t. I mean that there are some few now who are arguing against using agents – and some of those have said things that strongly suggest that when it comes down to it they just don’t trust agents.

        The reality is, most successful authors that I can think off, off-hand, work through agents. And that’s because most reputable agents have a set of business and sales-person skills and network contacts that is of vital interest to the ultimate career success of many authors.

        Also, thought I’d point out that the standard fee for most agents these days is 15%.

  4. Tessa, I don’t even know how to formulate my thoughts about this post (I’ve had the tab open for a day now, trying to figure it out) except that I really appreciate your insights. They’re spot-on, and they’ve given me a lot to think about with my own e-publishing experiments.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      Some people forget that when they take on e-publishing there’s a whole other set of skills needed to make it work, because you become a mini-publishing company of one. From a craft perspective, I’ve watched a lot of people fail, but some people do tough it out 🙂 That’s the point where passion really makes the biggest difference!

  5. You say that some of it doesn’t apply to publishing, but all of the things you’ve learned seem very applicable. It continues to change significantly as people decide what will work. We certainly have exciting times to be writing in.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      These are exciting times. I think writers need to decide what their goals are, and what options best fit their needs best.

      It makes me balk a little to think of books as product, but they are in a business sense.

      1. I think it is the time of creation is one of the things that make the product seem so difficult (along with the personal nature of what is created). I’ve sold bread previously and that product could be created in hours, and although each loaf was somewhat unique (I don’t tend to use exact recipes and like experimenting with recipes regardless). My sambo knits and her creations can take days to weeks to complete. My short stories take a couple of weeks (I usually let them sit between drafts) whereas my first novel has already consumed months and will continue to consume time. With the length of time I become much more emotionally attached to it and less able to think of it as product.

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