Interview with an indie fiction specialist
Updated: Oct 28, 2022
Time for an in-depth conversation with an indie fiction specialist!
The publishing landscape can be confusing – especially for first-time authors. Today’s guest, the indie fiction specialist Claire Cronshaw, seeks to change all that by answering some of the questions indie authors often ask.
She specialises in SFF, romance, and women’s fiction and – as you will see – brings some incredibly special qualities and experience to the table.
Read on to find out more – and if you’re interested in working with Claire on a project, you can contact her here.
What are the main differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing? And between self-publishing and indie presses?
There are all sorts of differences and a lot of it comes down to money – who pays for what; how much of the royalties the author keeps in each scenario; etc. And hand-in-hand with this is the issue of rights. If you sign to a traditional publisher, you’ll most likely be handing over your intellectual property, at least for a while. If you’re self-published, you have more control. Small indie presses are somewhere in between.
Running alongside the continuum of traditional publishingؘ–indie presses–self-publishing is an autonomy scale. How many processes and interventions do you want your manuscript to go through? Do you need or want a developmental edit, a line or copy edit, a proofread? Do you want to pick your own cover and book title? Your blurb? Have you got the funds to pay for each of these things, or just some? In traditional publishing, your publisher will sort all this for you and you won’t have to pay anything. Brilliant. But, then, check your royalties. Is it a case of swings and roundabouts? Indie presses may have in-house staff or subcontractors offering some or all of these services. Are some being offered to you free of charge? Do you have to pay for add-ons? There must be something in it for the press. Read your terms and conditions carefully.
And in self-publishing, you have no hand-holding. It’s all on you. That does not mean you have to be skilled in every area. You can still hire professionals to pick up some or all of the stages involved in getting your book ready – but obviously that means you will have to find them and pay them. But then, royalties. If you can sell enough copies to pay back your investment and make as much money as you’re hoping to out of your book, it could be worth it.
None of these routes offer get-rich-quick guarantees and each needs to be considered before a decision is made. And trad deals – well, you don’t get to decide whether you’re offered one. It’s a luxury being able to choose between all publishing options. An author’s own skill set may impact the viability of one publishing route over another. Evaluation skills are a must.
How did you become an indie fiction specialist?
The primary reason is because I’m in the indie fiction world and have been for the last 6+ years. My husband, Jon, is an indie fantasy author and I’ve been there on the sidelines, watching with interest, cheering him on, supporting him. When Jon started his author journey, I was still a full-time teacher. At this stage, doing the whole self-publishing thing, he hired copyeditors to go over his manuscripts. But when the edits were returned, I’d get involved for logistical reasons. You see, Jon is registered blind. He is severely sight-impaired. And trying to work through tracks to accept or reject changes and go through queries turned out to be a bit of a nightmare for him, despite his screen setup and audio accessibility options. So I got an insight into what it was all about by helping him. Add this to the fact that I’m a massive literature and linguistics geek – to be honest, I was in my element. In the end, we decided it would work out better for our family if I became his editor. But I didn’t want it to be a case of my-English-teacher-wife-has-checked-my-work. I know ‘marking’ and editing are different things. Jon deserved a professional who knew what they were doing, so I went through a suite of CIEP training courses. By this point, I’d caught the editing bug and I wanted to edit more. I wanted to work with a range of authors. So, I got online and set up my LinkedIn profile. I started connecting with and chatting to indie authors. What happens that brings them to me is that first, they establish I am a real person, that I’m skilled and I care. And then they place their trust in me and come to me for their copyedits, line edits and proofreads. I think it’s helped that I’ve seen the process through from idea to book-in-your-hand with Jon. I get what’s involved. And sometimes indie authors ask me about things that come before me or after me in the process. Sure, they ask me about editing and proofreading, but they ask me about other book stuff too. I have answers, resources and places where I can point them. There’s been a lot of: ‘Jon, this author has asked me about X. What can I tell them?’ These days, I don’t often check in with Jon for answers to the wider book stuff. I’ve learnt a lot along the way. I can say things like: ‘I’ve heard Draft2Digital is good. You might want to take a look.’
I can’t take my individual context out of why I edit indie fiction, but I’d like to think I’d have ended up with this specialism regardless of my husband. I gel with the mindset of indie authors who want to do it their own way. I get why they’ve chosen this route. It’s the same reason I’ve said goodbye to teaching and have become a freelance indie editor. Autonomy. The value of autonomy for mental wellbeing cannot be overstated. I love this world. Indies for the win!
What are your favourite genres and what are the common problems that authors have in these genres?
Women’s fiction, fantasy and romance (for editing) but for reading, I enjoy a much broader set of genres. My Goodreads profile tells you as much. You’ll see books from all three of those key genres alongside BookTok titles, historical fiction and cosy mysteries, mixed in with business books, the classics and dystopias.
Copyediting issues are similar across my three main genres; problems with syntax, grammar, punctuation, etc. I’d say fantasy has more propensity for capitalisation going awry. Authors sometimes want to state the importance of a Species or a Military Role or a Magic System or Lore by capitalising it. Each to their own, but I find it distracting. Though I’d keep the capitalisation if that was the author’s wish. As long as it’s consistent. You can’t be capitalising Elven Magic on one page and not on the next.
In romance and women’s fiction, we’re sometimes looking at issues of character voice. Where families are involved, you’ve got multi-generations. It’s important the characters speak in a way that seems right for their age, geographical location, gender, etc. At copyediting stage, that comes down to the odd jarring word that needs to be queried. I’ve never had to deal with a case of a whole voice being wrong. If that was an issue, I’d put the brakes on the edit and suggest the author seek a developmental editor to help them address this.
What advice would you give to authors who want to self-publish their first indie title?
Identify what you want from the experience. To explore the bounds of your creativity? To make a living selling books? To formalise or legitimise your writing for a certain group or audience? For legacy reasons?
Be clear on this before you start researching how to publish. In fact, if you can, before you start writing. There’s an author I follow on TikTok who admits she thought about her creativity alone before publishing her first two books. And now she has two YA fantasy novels that have neither dragons nor a romance subplot, she’s wondering whether that was the right way to go for book sales. (She makes me laugh. She did an excellent marketing post about what the books don’t have – dragons and romance, and what they do have. I was drawn to the new magic system, the knife-to-throat trope, the companionship theme, but I told her she had me at ‘bread and cheese’! @RachaelWatsonAuthor is the master of irreverent TikToks.)
If you want to write for a certain market, make sure you’ve studied the market well. That means reading – and lots of it. Investing in a Kindle Unlimited subscription is a no-brainer. You’ll find a lot of indie titles on there, alongside those that are traditionally published. You might not even be able to tell which are self-published and which are not. It doesn’t necessarily matter – just read in the genre. If you’re curious, a quick google of the ‘author name’ + ‘indie’ / ‘self-publishing’ might bring up something that confirms it on their website, social media, Goodreads/Amazon bio, etc. If you want to write something that sits comfortably alongside the titles in a certain category, voracious reading across the genre will help you get a hold of what readers like and expect.
Then work out whether you have the necessary skill set to write this kind of book. Has your lifetime’s reading habits set you up for success as a writer? Or do you need to do some courses in your desired writing style before you put pen to paper? How much research is enough research? And how will you know when to stop? There’s a balance to be struck. Study and research is necessary – but don’t let it become a procrastination device. You are never going to know everything. Just get to a point where you feel sufficiently confident to start writing.
What dangers and challenges do indie authors face when choosing an editor?
There are a lot of people wanting to make money out of your publishing dreams by offering you various service packages – let’s be honest: that includes me. Editing is not a hobby. There are lots of trained professionals who will help no end and they deserve to be paid. They know what to do to elevate your writing. Your book will be far better as a result of their intervention. You’ve grown the tree; they’re doing the pruning. Of course, they want to make a living. But they are in the profession for the love of the written word, with a genuine desire to improve the confidence of writers who want to get their books out into the world.
But there are scammers out there too. People who call themselves proofreaders or editors who have had no training. People who will charge you for a service and do no more than you could easily do yourself – i.e. running your manuscript through Grammarly or ProWritingAid and not even necessarily reading it page by page, sentence by sentence, word by word. Be on your guard. Seek professionalism. Make sure they’ve got a website. Are their training credentials trustworthy? Are they a member of a professional organisation such as the CIEP, EFA or Editors Canada? Then check whether you like the cut of their jib. Connect with the editor on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram – wherever you hang out. Seek authenticity and make sure you’ve found someone you can communicate with. It’s likely there’ll be no intermediary between you and the editor when you enter your working relationship. It’s important you’ve picked someone you can connect with.
This lightbulb moment came to me recently as a potential way to weed out scammers. Even if you’re not a fan of phone calls or Zooms, you could suggest one hypothetically. See how the editor reacts. A scammer can hide behind email. The asynchronous quality of the medium gives them time to prepare. You’ll know whether you’ve got the genuine article when you speak to them face-to-face. That’s not to say you should give them an on-the-spot spelling bee! Before I run away with this idea, I know it is not without its flaws. Some excellent editors may hate me for suggesting this. Neurodiversity, personal contexts: myriad reasons might put paid to a call. Please lump this idea together with the check-they’re-genuine suggestions to follow the editor on social media, etc.
All this takes time. I’d recommend you start connecting with author service providers as soon as you can on your writing journey. The ideal position is to know who you’re going to reach out to for your edit well before you need the service. Hire in haste, repent at leisure.
Does editing indie fiction require a different skill set to editing traditionally published fiction?
Not really. It’s just about being more flexible. Sometimes the boundaries between different levels of editing are more blurred in the indie world. It makes sense. If an author has budgeted a certain amount for author services, it may be that they have to skip a level of intervention a traditionally published novel would go through.
Coming back to evaluation: if you’ve got, say, £1500 put aside for author services on your 80,000 word novel, you might prioritise a cover designer (honestly, you’re not going to shift many with a desktop publishing effort) and, depending on what you’ve got left of your budget, you might only be able to get one round of editing. And that might be OK if you’ve decided, actually, structure is your strength, so a developmental edit isn’t a top priority – but you’ve got enough for a copyedit and will forgo a proofread. Now, for the copyeditor you’ve hired, there could be some stuff that crops up in the edit that isn’t in their remit. Hopefully, nothing major. Some editors will work to rule and do all the processes of their ‘stage’ and nothing else. Others might think: You know what, I can’t help myself. I’ve got to suggest a fix to the flow of this sentence, or that sentence there with the jarring POV. If it’s the odd sentence here and there needing a bit more work, I usually subsume it into my workflow.
There have been rare occasions where a little way into an edit I’ve had to contact the author to say I cannot in good conscience continue the level of editing I’ve been hired to do; that the ‘skipped’ level of editing would make all the difference. If it’s something I’ve been trained to do, we can renegotiate the rate and I’ll keep hold of the manuscript and work on it with the additional level of intervention. If it’s not in my wheelhouse, I’ll return the manuscript, charge for my time thus far, and perhaps give the names of some contacts who can help with the higher level of editing.
All editors, whether they are working on traditional or indie fiction, need to exercise careful judgement. The Goldilocks principle is needed in all cases. How much intervention is the right level? It’s got to be just right. It’s probably easier in traditional publishing to know what ‘just right’ looks like. The levels of intervention in each round of editing are more clearly defined. But when you’re working with indie authors – especially those who have never had anything traditionally published – their only judge of what is and isn’t too much is their gut reaction when they receive the edits back. That’s why I wouldn’t do an indie edit without doing a sample first. I need the author to see what 1000 words of their manuscript will look like when it’s gone through my hands. Not all samples lead to being hired. While I am proud of my conversion rate, it’d be a lie to say 100% of samples lead to being contracted. While I’m not sure whether it’s my fee putting off the occasional author, I do know that, once, it came down to my level of intervention – because the author told me so! ‘You can prise my adverbs out of my cold, dead hands’ was the feedback I got! Other authors are more than happy to have their manuscripts tightened up. You can see my glowing testimonials on my website and LinkedIn for evidence of this.
The more experienced I’ve become, the more I’ve improved my communication. I ask the right questions from the get-go. It’s about finding the right fit. So it’s not the editorial skills that are necessarily different in indie fiction editing, it’s more the negotiation and communication skills required.
What’s next for you – and for the indie publishing scene in general?
On Sunday I sat on my sofa and, no word of a lie, the phrase ‘this is the first day of the rest of your life’ popped into my head. Two weeks ago, I gave up my second job to focus on editing. The mental energy required to hold down two challenging jobs took more toll than I had realised. Luckily, I’d given myself a fortnight off to decompress. That first week, I was bone-tired. It was like thinking through treacle. Then, week two, I was lucky enough to go on holiday – lovely hotel: half-board, swimming pool, plenty of opportunity for relaxation. I got back on Saturday and felt so much better for it. That’s when the realisation hit: I’m 100% self-employed. Gosh, it’s exciting. So, what’s next for me is more editing. More capacity to edit. The ability to be flexible with my week so I can fit in the editing with the best of my energy.
In terms of what I have lined up to edit, and what I want to edit – well, that’s something I am spending my time thinking about. I edit lots of fantasy and romance. I love both. I edit some women’s fiction – but I want more. It’s so hard to niche down when you read across a wide range of genres. That’s what I’m grappling with.
The other thing I’m thinking about is whether to expand my service packages. At the moment, I’m not offering developmental editing. I need to do more training to be confident offering this service. I can see myself doing this in the not-too-distant future.
Then there are ideas afloat for how people can get a ‘piece of me’ even if they haven’t yet got the budget for an edit. A mailing list is in the pipeline which will feature news, editing insights, tips, etc. Then there might be a course (online and/or in-person) which I’d like to create – I may as well put those curriculum design skills I’ve been honing for the last 18 years to good use.
What’s next for the indie publishing scene in general? Aesthetics and accessibility. Readers want to consume books in their preferred format – whether that’s Kindle, audio, paperback or hardback. But I think we are at a time where (and this is great news for authors) some readers want more than one copy of the text. There’s the practical nature of having the book on your Kindle or phone. But then there’s the aesthetic (and bragging rights) appeal of having the book physically on your shelf. Linked to bragging rights is the rise of Kickstarter. Being able to access exclusive content by virtue of chucking a tenner in an author’s cap – that seems to appeal to a certain type of reader. So authors are becoming more accessible. They can respond more quickly to what readers want.
That’s the beauty of indie publishing. It’s nimble. It can react to gaps in the markets quickly. Take, for instance, Westerns. Old hat? (If you’ll pardon the pun.) If you want to read a Western but you can’t find anything in your local library or bookstore, there’ll be something that floats your boat on Kindle. Once you’ve found it, more will be suggested to you. You’ll be spoilt for choice.
Choice. Autonomy. These are the watchwords for indie writers and readers. And I find that refreshing.
Once again, if you’re interested in working with Claire on a project, you can contact her here.
Check out ALLi’s website with all kinds of useful resources for self-publishing authors.
Andrew Hodges, PhD is a copyeditor and developmental editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. His expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
He is an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.
You can contact him here, or feel free to leave a comment below!