How to make a lot of money in indie publishing (and how to go broke).

How to make a lot of money in indie publishing (and how to go broke).

This past month I’ve been thinking big and buying up online platforms related to publishing and book design.

My little blog gets some traffic, and my book cover design business is doing fine – I just want to be a bigger player.

A couple weeks ago I found a little blog network for indie authors – it had a website on book marketing, an indie bookstore, and even a book award contest. The site was earning about $1000 a month in ads. I’m still really tempted to buy it (sale price would probably be around 10K). With some redesign, I could grow it bigger and it fills some gaps I’m not currently participating in.

Then today I heard through the grapevine that Foboko was up for sale.


I’d never visited Foboko before, but it’s awesome. A huge platform, with a built-in book making wizard and online writing tools. I especially appreciate the helpful guided writing prompts depending on your chosen genre. Definitely a great way to start a book and make sure you hit all the right buttons, have a powerful story arch and the essential cast of supplementary characters.

The site has a paid and free version – the paid version gets to read all the ebooks for free (so I gather). I don’t think it helps you submit to online bookstores like Smashwords does, but you can download your book files.

The owners of the site say it cost them $300,000 to make, and that the minimum offer they’d accept is “5-digits.” I’m guessing around 50k but could be a lot less.

The problem with Foboko, for all its promise and glory, is that it isn’t making money.

During a gold rush, sell shovels

There’s a lot of money to be made in the indie publishing boom.

But indie authors themselves have a few priorities that need to be met.

They want to put out a high quality book – so they’ll pay for services like editing and book design.

They want it up in bookstores, so they’ll pay for distribution or assistance getting into iBooks, Kindle, etc.

They could do most of it themselves, but many are happy to pay for hand-holding.

But that’s just the publishing side

After they publish, they need marketing, and book reviews. They need to build their website, get more social media followers, develop new content, build a platform.

Eventually they’ll get tired of marketing and go write another book – in which case, finding a community of supportive, knowledgeable writers that empathize with the plight of the struggling author is comforting.

Let’s review the list:

1. For book design and creation, there are lots of tools. They only need one. They’ll find one that works and use it, or hire somebody. Writing online is fun, but most authors will write their books on their computers in a program they’re used to – so they’re looking for conversion and distribution, the easier the better. Smashwords has always been pretty good at this; BookBaby is a big competitor; Draft2digital is simpler to use. Kindle makes it pretty easy to upload files, but conversion+distribution to all sites will win out. They only need one service. Foboko is cool, but only half of the puzzle – it’s trying to be a bookstore and an ebook making site.

I’m especially interested in all of this because I’m trying to bring self-publishing to Asia, and will be launching a major indie publishing blog and service in Chinese soon (but I’m still a little weak on the conversion /distribution process).

2. For marketing and selling, authors need:

  • blogs and websites about book marketing
  • places to pay for advertising
  • places they can write guest posts and connect with a larger audience

Foboko is kind of a mixed community site where authors and readers can co-exist, but that’s unlikely to work well: for one, since most mainstream published books will just go to Amazon and the main sites (because they don’t need help with book creation) the books on the site are all indie pub, which means, even if they’re really good, most of them have ugly covers, which brings down trust and credibility.

Readers will take a chance on new, self-publishing writers if the cost is very low (or free), but probably won’t subscribe just so they can take a look.

Also – the world already has Goodreads, which keeps an air of professionalism around authors by their special, non-normal user profiles. Foboko lets readers in too early, at the production stage, where they can “peak behind the curtain.” Readers want amazing, finished books, but they don’t necessarily want to struggle through the creative process with the authors.

3. Community sites

For the reasons I just mentioned, Goodreads is a great place for readers, and is useful for authors building a platform, but authors really need separate community sites. Foboko aims to be a place where authors can get instant feedback on work – which is brilliant – but this feedback should come from other authors, not potential readers.

But what truly distinguishes from other “self publishing” websites is that you gain access to a social community of fellow writers, published professionals, and readers who are available to help you be the best author you can be. We have taken book writing from an arduous individual task, and put it in an exciting 21st Century social networking environment. You can access this network at any stage of the creative process, and receive advice on everything from coming up with a title, to editing, and graphics. If you want comments or help only from specific “friends” in your own personal network you can do that too.

My feedback: fill a community with beginners, and readers, and writers, and have them talk about important stuff like book design, and the results may be ugly. Support and empathy are great, but it won’t actually  help improve your writing or make a quality product unless the advice is coming from seasoned professionals (and why would they be hanging out on a site like that?)

If I were running Foboko, I would concentrate on its usefulness in writing books – I believe publishing early and having a community of beta readers (other authors) to offer criticism would be invaluable. I also believe publishing slowly and building up fans and likes (such as some newer book crowdfunding sites like PubSlush) is a great idea. It’s smart to let readers in on your process and get them involved – up to a point. But they also need to trust that you have the basics down (that the writing is amazing, that you have the experience to finish an awesome book).

Foboko’s writing software and guide is useful. I would focus more on writing and finishing the book (even though we already have Nanowrimo). I would focus on fun, community based contests, rewards and prizes, motivation and support. Helping authors finish quality books – that’s a much needed service (I’d almost like to pay just for someone to call me up everyday and ask “are you writing right now? Have you finished your 1000 words?” Foboko does have a word-counting goal option which is really cool.

A better such community is needed. I might make one.

What’s left

Here’s what’s still missing:

  • Well-designed sites which attract the right kind of target readers (not just other indie authors), which encourage guest posts and give a prominent byline with links to the author’s website and/or books. Think Huffpo or Wikipedia, but genre-specific. Big community sites, with tons of content that rank well in search engines, to increase the chances that indie authors will be discovered by new readers (I’m building about 5 of these right now).
  • A simple, easy to use cover design solution that makes beautiful covers. Book covers are about the single most important thing (after a great story). Most indie covers are ugly. There are a lot of cheap mediocre solutions. There are a lot of people who will take your money. Amazon and Lulu have basic cover design software but it stinks and the templates are ugly. I’ve seen some varieties which are almost good enough but lack the features to really make a winning cover, and also have ugly templates. I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford making something as kickass as it needs to be, but I’m working with some developers to see what can be done.
  • A better way to get lots of book reviews. Marketing doesn’t help without a good cover and some reviews. Getting reviews is hard. There should be a much easier way. There should be a platform that encourages authors to review each other’s books, but that stresses authenticity and honesty (falsely inflated book reviews are bad and will lead to a backlash in negative reviews. Fair, critical reviews are better). I’m building just such a platform.

The main problem I can see with my efforts is that – while I’m filling specific and much needed gaps in the publishing process, I plan to make all these sites and tools free. But I’m spending a lot of money building them and hosting them. Luckily I live in Asia where I can get by on less, but eventually I may have to add advertising, or charge some kind of fee, but I’ll deal with that later. I feel like, if I make a tool that’s needed and everybody loves using it, everything will work out in the end.

Did I miss something?

What are major indie author needs that aren’t being addressed? What are self-publishing frustrations that need a better solution?





  • esse Posted

    Information is rampant, and at any time the guru on your youtube tutorial is likely to release sudden spurts of ancient Greek. I’m left there blinking lol. I’m learning the lingo as fast as I can, but right now there seems to be no “streamlining” this process. I’ve had to learn – apply – learn – apply like a mad dog for the past two months while preparing for a book launch in January. SEO, slugs, blog tours and landing pages (oh my!), all with an overwhelming foray of free, paid and tricky options. Thx for being straight forward.

  • stephencarter Posted

    One major thing is how writing advisers always mention the importance of ‘connecting’ via social media. And many guys really despise using it, myself included. Why has business become such a hand-holding feminized process of relating & connecting & sharing & listening & responding? Ach it’s become tiresome. Seriously. It’s 905 insincere & unhelpful, it’s like spinning your wheels most of the time. Anyway, so much of indie-publishing seems to be this sort of thing. I’m closing down excess social media that isn’t helping me or producing anything. I dropped my Twitter from 63,000 to 31,000, and I only kept that b/c people expect Twitter & FB links as a minimum. I’m just saying we’re all following behind the social media craze and wasting time and getting burned out trying to keep up with it all.

    Plus I think in 2 or 3 years reviews may crash & just be ignored completely. I NEVER check a review ever when I buy an ebook. Ever. There must be some other kind of social proof? That’s the last step in the buying decision process. It’s only important now b/c industry sites use reviews as a gatekeeper tactic (for posting for Free days, etc).

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