Hello readers! I’m actually out of the office today, and this post was written in advance! So while you’re reading this, given the schedule I’m probably pressure-washing the underside of a 48-foot commercial fishing vessel.
Anyway, today’s post is another reader request. Understandably so, too, since the topic of Indie, or independent publishing, has been a hot one across the industry for the last few years. Last decade with some change, really. But the storm surrounding it has continued to swirl and continue to be hotly contested. Hence, why I often get questions about it, and even have talked about it before here on the site.
But this reader wanted it directly addressed as part of Being a Better Writer, not just in an opinion post or as a side piece on the site. So, today we’re going to talk all about independent publishing. More specifically, we’re going to talk about why it isn’t bad, which is what the reader specifically wanted to know.
So settle back, grab a snack, and hit the jump.
Okay look. To start off, I know that there are a lot of people out there that tend to demonize independently published books. They go on and on about those that go Indie, instead of going to a Trad Pub, are just those that “couldn’t make it” or “weren’t good enough for a real publisher.” These people—of whom I’ve met a few—usually are very loud and never really shut up. They repeat their points, or a version of them, ad infinitum, and will usually post or speak even when no one wanted or asked for their opinion about how “bad” some Indie book is simply for being “Indie” (for example, seen this where people have discussed The Martian or Wool).
And you know what I’ve noticed about all these very loud opinionated people? None of them have ever published a book. They’ve never even tried. And you know what that means?
These people have no idea what they’re talking about. These are the folks that have only the vaguest, most nebulous idea about how publishing works, what publishing is like, etc.
Basically? These loudmouths are the anti-vaxxers of the book publishing world. They will loudly and proudly proclaim to a successful author that said author has no idea what he’s talking about because they did “the Google” on publishing and are certain blah blah blah.
Now it’s worth noting that the large publishing houses don’t mind this sort of misconception going around. In fact, they actively sponsor it, or at least did for some time. Even a few years ago it wasn’t at all uncommon to find what were quite literally hit pieces against Indie publishing in major publications that had in tiny little print near the bottom something like “This post sponsored by [Insert Trad 5 pub here].” So yes, the large publishers, to whom Indie is competition and a threat to what was once a powerful stranglehold (just like any other entertainment industry) have pushed the narrative that Indie publishing is “nothing” as hard as they can. And frankly, it’s about as honest as any other form of advertising saying something like “X brand is better than any other brand!” Because at the end of the day, that’s what this is: A company saying “Don’t give money to anyone but us.”
The trick is that while the publishing industry is like other industries in the entertainment sphere in how it can be, it’s audience is a bit more distinct, and they’ve had longer to fight back than industries like the music industry or the games industry have. Hence, where in music, film, and games, Indie is now celebrated and seen as a complete part of their respective mediums … Independent books aren’t quite there yet … Though I will note that the last few years have seen a major shift in public perception as more and more highly successful authors and books go independent, with many authors leaving their traditional publishers entirely or adopting the hybrid model.
Hybrid model, Trad Pub … for some this is already getting in too deep, so let’s take a step back and dive into the question at hand: Why isn’t Indie Evil?
The simplest answer to this question is that it breaks a long-term stranglehold that the publishing industry has held. For decades now, publishing—as in traditional publishing—has been a monopoly. Not in economic terms, but in ideological terms. And no, I’m not talking “left VS right” politics. I’m talking about how the industry functioned in a way that controlled the market until it delivered what it believed the market wanted.
See, here’s the thing: Trad Pubs didn’t have to be a monopoly in legal terms to maintain a stanglehold over what was published and what became a success. Like the music industry, control of what was published was split between six massive companies and a few smaller companies (like Baen) that managed to hang on. These large publishers were all based in one place, New York, and had near complete control over what people had a choice in buying.
Now, some who are against Indie might be thinking “Gatekeepers!” that kept out the “riffraff.” And well … thing is yes, that’s how it started. But as power grew more and more centralized it was less about “What quality can we bring forward” and more about “What do we few people think we can sell this year?” Same as the music labels, it became more about control and mining the audience for money each year and less about “Are we delivering an amazing product?”
This is why Dune, which is now regarded as one of the pillars of Science-Fiction, had to be published by a publisher that handled automotive manuals. No “real publisher” wanted it because it wasn’t what they sold.
And look, I’m not saying that traditional publishers sat around tables like Bond villains giggling at one another and trying to figure out how to manipulate the market. What I’m saying is that the more powerful they became as the decades went on, and the less competition they had, the more they got to choose what “won” and what didn’t. And as the decades stretched on, that behavior became less “Oh look, we can do this” and more of an expectation of “This is the way it is, and it always will be. We have the power.” Occasionally, something like Dune would come along and make waves, but they’d purchase anything that did, and then go back to business as usual.
Of course, as that power grew more and more centralized into several companies, the impetuous to change or even try something new tapered off. A great comparison would be the “not monopoly” of US Internet Service Providers. Yes, people had a “choice” as the various giants agreed not to step on one another’s toes but effectively kept everything locked down between them.
Now, someone did see a profitable market here, and thus we saw the rise of “Vanity Press.” Vanity Press is now all-but-dead (it only hangs on because some people out there are about two decades behind the times and don’t realize that things have changed), but for a time in the publishing world they were a way “around” the wall that the publishers had built for themselves. For a “fee” you could have copies of your book printed! Huzzah, you’d be published! No editing, no advertising, but hey, you’d have copies. And in a world where a publishing run cost thousands of dollars on specialized machinery, if you were turned away by the publishers and couldn’t find an automotive manual publisher willing to take it on, well … that was it. You either gave vanity press a shot (and went nowhere, because their goal was to make money off people, not help them) or you continued to try and get a Trad Pub’s attention, which may never come.
Now at the time, there was at least the silver lining that if you were picked up after what could be decades of sending the same novel in again and again, you’d at least get a decent paycheck for your efforts. Stephen King, whose debut novel Carrie was rejected so many times without editors even looking at it he actually trashed it and attempted to give up, only for his wife to dig it out and encourage him, and who was so poor as a result of trying to be a writer he didn’t even have a phone because they couldn’t afford it, was given an advance worth now two-point-five million dollars.
From slump to swank, overnight. Because the publishers controlled the market so tightly, money was something they might as well have been printing. If you managed to get past that wall they’d built, you were very likely set.
Or maybe not. See, at the same time this power encouraged behavior that defended the wall as well, and quite aggressively. One of my old teachers (who is a very well-known and successful author) once related a story about a woman who was ecstatic to find that she’d been picked up by a publisher. She got an advance that was a lot of money (not quite King’s, but still great), promises of more books, etc etc … As long as her debut sold over 3000 copies.
Then the publisher printed 2000 and stopped. All 2000 sold (an impressive number in the book world), but the publisher was under no obligation to print more. Worse, the contract this woman had hastily signed stipulated that they, the publisher, had first and only option on anything else she wrote for the next fifteen years. She was, by contract, not allowed to write for anyone else for the duration of the contract. And since only 2000 copies of her work had sold, the publisher was under no obligation to publish any more.
The point this author related, as it had been told to them, was that the cost of the advance the publisher had given her, plus the royalty on those 2000 copies, was a cost the publisher were willing to pay to keep that woman from breaching the wall they’d built and threatening their other established authors they’d built up. The gatekeeping had become, with the success and power of these publishers, not about “letting quality in” but now about keeping it out if it threatened the delicate system they’d been able to build for themselves.
Again, this wasn’t James Bond style chortling around a table. It was more an evolution of power becoming more and more tightly centralized. Eventually, the point of the power shifted to become keeping that power and the comfort it had brought.
“Okay,” I hear some of you saying. “That’s awful and all, but how a lot of business operates, and also about Trad Pub and how evil they can be, instead of about why Indie isn’t evil. When are you getting to that last bit, or will you?”
Yes. I will. In order to understand why Indie Publishing has been demonized the way it has been, however, you need to see what publishing was before it appeared on the scene: A tightly-walled, tightly controlled institution. They had built their walls large and tall, and in return those who were able to “enter” were set for life. It was comfortable, controlled, and most of all profitable.
In way, actually, it kind of reminds me of the society from Running Man, an old Sylvester Stallone film that’s honestly gotten better as the years have gone by. In Running Man we’re shown a future society that is “perfect and secure” but also has built both literal and figurative walls to keep out anyone and everyone else that would “disturb” said perfection. Trad Pub had built for itself a little utopia. Occasionally a wave would sweep by that was unplanned for, like Dune, but at the end of the day the only way to exist as a published writer was to subscribe to their rules and jump through their hoops. If you didn’t? Well, you were ejected. Banished from the utopia.
Again, this is not “Bond villainy,” and for the most part, nobody set out to build this system. It was just the one that worked to provide both stability and large amounts of money. How else did most 80s businesses afford so much cocaine? They made mad money and built a system where they could make that the most likely … Even if it meant having a firm hand of control over everything.
And then something unexpected happened. Something that changed the game from the ground up, and made those walls crumble to the ground. An earthquake struck the industry like a bomb.
The internet became a thing. The computer became personal. And books? They went digital.
It took a while. In fact, the large publishers actively fought against it (and many still do). That first shockwave hit, and they watched as the quake tore down the walls around the music industry (Napster, Garageband, iTunes, etc). They watched as the carefully constructed, curated spaces the record labels had built fell apart, power shifting into the hands of the artists, who could now sell their music directly to fans with no need for an intermediary. Empires and careers collapsed almost overnight as fans flocked to musicians directly, the walls gone, and those same musicians looked back at their labels and said “Wait, if the computer on my desk can do most of what you do, why do I need you?”
Traditional Publishers watched with mounting horror as the same wave struck the games industry, slamming through studios and birthing new services like “Steam” that allowed developers to sell their game directly to the consumer, cutting out the publisher or allowing for smaller publishers that didn’t take as massive a take to compete directly with those large, carefully curated fortresses of content. Power standings began to shake apart as Indie games blasted across the game market, to the degree that news and the public both began championing them.
The same quake struck the movie industry, and again titans fell. Companies like Blockbuster died as newcomers leveraged the power of the web and emergent technologies to disrupt a business model that hadn’t changed in decades.
Traditional Publishing watched all of this happen, and then with mounting horror saw the wave coming their way. Ebook readers were being manufactured. Sites like Amazon and Smashwords prepared to be storefronts, even authors websites. Print-on-demand machines and cheap printing houses removed the need for the power and expense the Trad Pubs held. Panic rose, and they had to make a decision: Adapt … or die.
Odd as it might sound, they took the second option. Talk to a publisher and they’ll swear they took a third option. But as the big six we had back when this “revolution” started have now become the big four, as two of them have gone under, and with expectations that another will fall in the next few years … Yeah, they’ve chosen death. Worse, they’ve doubled down. One publisher decided that they weren’t New York enough and despite not having a profit in years, blew a massive amount of money on a new penthouse office suite in New York, moving their entire company to more expensive holdings to be “closer” to “the action.
Again, not Bond-evil. Just … pining. Desperate for the days when they didn’t have this quake of change sweeping over them. Determined to prove that “the old ways are best” by holding onto outdated and behind the times methods like sending manuscripts through the mail, printed, instead of digitally with immediate response and back-and-forth from editors. Holding on to warehouses that would hold thousands of books printed in advance, and still printing said books like that even when much of the market is using newer, cheaper Print-on-Demand services for smaller print runs.
In other words, hanging onto methodology that’s increasingly becoming expensive while fighting a market share that does seem to be shrinking. Which leads into cutting costs, and cutting royalties and advances (remember that advance on Carrie? An article from the other day pointed out that the median advance is now $6,000. From 2.5 million to $6000.
I will point out once again that until his compensation was made private, the CEO of MacMillan, one of the remaining big four, was one of the highest in the United States. Some of what’s going definitely feels like the pillaging of a sinking ship before it goes under for every dime and dollar that can be found. “Cut advances again, company isn’t long for the world anyway, but we can buy ourselves some time on the dreams of someone who believes we’re the only future they have!”
Okay, that is a bit Bond-evil, I’ll admit. But it’s in segments of these big publishers. Most of the people working there? They’re just scared for their job and their future. They’ve done it their entire life, and now that’s looking supremely unsteady.
“Now can we talk about why Indie isn’t evil?”
Yes. Now we can. Look, all that background and context exists because without that context, the reasons why Indie “isn’t evil” are standing in a void or worse, against an imagined Camelot of publishing that, if it ever did exist, certainly doesn’t exist today.
But it was also an explanation of why there are those that truly see Indie publishing as a bad or even “evil” thing. After all, it’s destroying their livelihood. It’s brought change. And some people that have been comfortable or thought that all was well with their careers have seen those careers become shaky overnight. Because of Indie Publishing.
So yes, there are people who are, because of their position, opposed to Indie Publishing and what it does because to them it threatened their stability and their way of life. They may love books, and they may love authors, but it’s hard to like something that may have cost you your job when you were one of the employees that lost your career when some of the big Trad Pubs crumbled.
And I’m not going to argue that Indie is perfect either. It has weaknesses and drawbacks. Sort of like that comparison to Running Man I made earlier, in the end of that flick the protagonist makes the point that neither group seems right, that both have good ideas and bad ideas, and that maybe by working together will something new come about.
Personally, as this is how it’s gone for games, movies, and music, I believe the same will happen with books. In another decade or so we’ll end up with the new standard. But for now … with all that’s been said, here’s why Indie isn’t evil.
Reason #1: Pay
This point absolutely cannot be understated enough. These days, payments from traditional publishers have shrunk to near nothing. They already were shrinking before the quake hit, because they had all the power, so why give what they didn’t need to away? Even if it wasn’t “giving” but “paying,” still. Like with other entertainment mediums, one of the strengths of Indie books is that they pay a much better royalty. Where a royalty from a Trad Pub can be anywhere from half a percent to maybe 15% if you got an astronomically good deal (most authors seem to get a penny or a few per book) the royalty for Indie is anywhere from 30% to 70%, or even 100% for those authors that sell on their own site and don’t have a middleman.
And wow is this good. 98% of all published books from a traditional publisher sell less than 5,000 copies. If you’re making ten cents a book (which is an above average royalty, meaning you likely have a few books under you), then odds are you’ll make $500 by cracking into the top two percent of the market with Trad Pub. For a book that may have taken over a year to write.
Conversely then, if you make $5 a copy sold independently, you only need to sell 100 copies to earn the same amount of money. Which is a staggering difference in income. Build up to sell 5,000 copies at a $5 royalty? That’s $25,000.
Now, this isn’t a path to instant riches. You still have to sell those copies. But at the end of the day, one of Indie’s greatest appeals is the profit that it brings directly to a creator, rather than the pennies most Trad Pub is willing to bring.
Reason #2: Freedom from Control
Not that pay is the only reason. Another reason a lot of authors these days are choosing Indie (and a fantastic reason why Indie is good rather than bad) is that remaining independent leaves the author and creator with a lot more creative control.
For example, do you know why today you see more authors jumping at new genres under the same name? Because Indie proved that it worked. Above where I noted the Trad Pub’s approach of “you do it our way, or you don’t do it at all?” Well, it turns out that some of the stuff they believed in that process was completely wrong. It used to be that if you were say, a writer of Sci-Fi but decided you wanted to write something else, you couldn’t. The choice wasn’t yours to make unless you were A) insanely famous or B) the publisher agreed to let you. And publishers? They didn’t believe that an author could jump genres. Even fifteen years ago you would be told that in order to jump genres, you’d need to be under a different name because “audiences don’t trust authors that change genres.”
The roots of control with Trad Pub went deeper than that. Trad pub often determined what an author’s next book would be. Want to write a heist novel? Sorry, our “research” (read for a bunch of people in New York chatting over lunch about what they’ll sell next) says that won’t sell (because we won’t sell it). You’re going to write a wizard school novel, because those are big. Don’t like it? Then stop writing. By the way, we sold the movie rights to that book you wrote and it’s going to be reimagined as a thriller now. Had lunch with a Hollywood exec!
Again, I’m kind of harping on Trad Pub here, but once again it’s to show by contrast why Indie began blowing up when it did. Indie gave authors freedom to do and try what they wanted. They could write books like Wool, or The Martian, books that a Trad Pub wouldn’t sell or publish, and publish them anyway. They could handle their own rights and name, rather than signing them over to a publisher. They could change genres, or change styles, and the publisher had no power to tell them ‘No, our contract says you do this.’
Indie publishing brings with it freedom. An author doesn’t have to only write what a Trad Pub wants. They can write what they want.
Now some of you might be thinking “Yes, but doesn’t Trad Pub know what the people want?” And the truth is: No they don’t. They guess, or more often “decide” for everyone else.
All those accusations that Trad Pub “won’t publish” certain types of stories about particular upbringings, places around the world, or from certain ethnicities of authors? Another reason Indie has taken off is because a lot of places and people that were before ignored by publishing, and this includes everything from “Sci-Fi stories we’ve decided not to sell” to “Stories from countries or ethnic groups we’ve decided not to sell” begin to see Indie as a way to circumvent Trad’s wall.
What happened? Well, it turned out that Trad Pub was wrong. People did want those stories. People did want to, for example, see authors from places that weren’t just the US, but countries like Asia or Africa. The only honest reason Trad Pub even makes a big deal out of “Look at our authors from [insert country here] is because Indie allowed those people to tell their stories first, and Trad Pub is trying to play catchup.
Look at it like Blockbuster VS Netflix. Blockbuster mocked Netflix back in the day. ‘No one wants to rent a movie through the mail. Or have it as long as they want. They want our rigorous order and limited selection.’ Trad pub said ‘Hey, no one wants to read authors from [pick any non-US place].’ Indie said otherwise. Now Trad is playing catch up.
Basically, Indie is good for books because it not only returns creative control to the author (along with all the rights that entails), but it also gives the book industry the freedom for readers to choose what they want to read, rather than a publisher telling them what will be available. It gave voices all over the world a chance to put their story out there, even when a publisher said “no.”
This also plays back into the first one. Remember our mention of how bad pay from publishers has become above? Well, when The Martian became one of the biggest breakout books of the year, who held the power over the book? The author, Weir, did. And that meant that publishers who wanted it had to bid for the right to be the only seller of physical copies. If memory serves, he sold the rights for the first … 100,000 I think, copies, for a quarter of a million dollars, and then publisher (again, IIRC) cleared that in six months, so they then had to buy the rights to more copies.
Conversely, the book very likely wouldn’t have been published at all if Weir had been with a Trad Pub, and even if it had, 100,000 copies would have made even at ten cents a mere ten grand, compared to the quarter of a million he took instead.
This point kind of got away from me and hit a few areas, but at the end of the day Indie is good (and has been good) for publishing because it’s given freedom and control over their work back to the creator. Whether that’s the freedom to write a story that’s outside of their genre, or that a Trad Pub insisted wouldn’t sell, the choice is theirs. They can write what they want, whether or not it sells. It’s entirely their decision.
Reason #3: Speed
Hey, pop quiz: How long might it take for a book to reach the market once an author has finished the first draft? What do you think? A year? Two? Three?
Well, in my experience, it depends on whether or not you’re asking after an Indie author, or a Trad Pub author. Because Trad Pub … Trad Pub takes a while. They’ve got schedules. They don’t want a book to compete with other books they’re releasing, so they push it back another year. Or maybe they believe that the kind of book it is has fallen out of favor, so they delay it until they see set sales numbers. Or maybe they’re just still waiting for the manuscript the author finished to arrive in the mail.
Even when all of that is done there are still negotiations with the bookstores to handle. They have to go back and forth on a cover. Agree on tours the author will pay for. Etc.
What about an Indie author? Well, in the independent world, things are as fast or as slow as you make them. And since authors like to eat, and more books means more chance at a sale … Indie authors tend to be very fast indeed.
But there’s more to this than just the author’s speed, or their editors. There’s also the difference in technologies used. Earlier I mentioned print-on-demand. The only way for a book like Axtara to “sell out” is if there’s so much demand that the printer can’t make copies fast enough.
Conventional publishing is a case of “Okay, we have a book, let’s make a print run.” The machine is set up, the number of desired copies is made (usually several thousand or more), and then those copies are shipped to the bookstore. If those copies all get sold out … well then tough cookies for the buyer. Unless they and several thousand people still want to acquire it, their only luck is secondhand, or to wait the long months it might take for the publisher to get around to ordering another run of copies.
Indie authors don’t have that issue, however (again, unless their book is so popular that material limitations are coming into play). If a reader wants a copy of their book, or a bookstore wants another five, they can place that order immediately, and within a few days their copies will arrive. Very little wait, very little fuss.
Combined, this “cut out” of the bureaucracy of Trad Pub and the newer technology like print-on-demand embraced by Indie authors means that the “turnaround” time on a book is low. Very low, especially by comparison. Which isn’t just good for the author, but also the reader! It means that the books they enjoy arrive more often, and with greater availability. Unless an author wishes it so, an Indie book never has to go out of print, even if it’s decades old and doesn’t sell that much anymore. Compare that to a Trad Pub where if you missed a rare book … tough. You missed it. Go buy something new, will you?
Reason #4: Indie is Greener
Speaking of print-on-demand, you know else is nice about it? It’s not wasteful. Print-on-demand requires very little warehouse space (and none for stocking tens of thousands of copies of books). It doesn’t run into the issue of printing 4000 copies of books and then only having half of them sell, with the other half being pulped for a landfill somewhere. If it’s an electronic book (something Trad Pub has pushed hard against) it doesn’t require any paper at all, and instead just requires a bit of electricity you can get from the sun or the wind.
In other words, Indie publishing is far more green than traditional publishing. Oh, and not just in the logistics of the books themselves, either.
Trad Pub relies on expensive New York City penthouses and bringing everyone into offices. Indie publishing is done out of peoples’ homes, with no commute. If there’s an agent involved, they might have an office somewhere, but even so, the total economic impact of Indie publishing is just plain smaller. They embrace new technology that Trad Pub is still debating (or worse, rejecting in light of costs they’ve already sunk into older methods).
Indie’s efficiency and agility does come with the advantage of leaving far less of a footprint than Trad Pub. Especially as Indie continues to embrace technology and advances as they come along.
Now of course, if someone starts selling books and book covers as NFTs … and dang it someone already is. Which does lead us into the next bit here—
Nothing is perfect. Again, going back to Running Man, the message at the end was that both sides had valid points and ideas, and needed to come together to make a better system. Pure Indie publishing is not the goal, nor should it be. However, we’re only now coming out of pure Trad Pub … and that’s not been so good either.
And yes, the goal of this post is “Indie isn’t evil.” And I don’t think it is. There are a lot of good things that Indie has brought to the table for books. And music. And games, etc. But Indie never fully replaced those industries or took them over. They simply found a middle ground where both could flourish, and both could drive innovation and new ideas that the one alone could not achieve.
Look, there are drawbacks to the wild west of Indie as well. There are a lot (though less than there once were, I believe) of poorly written Indie books out there that never saw an editor (or saw a very cheap one), grabbed their cover from some stock photo site. Yeah, when the boom happened, a lot of people went panning for gold and struck out, but we still see the signs of it. And yeah, pretty often someone else will see or hear a new hit book and then they’ll try to pan for the gold for a bit.
Indie publishing isn’t perfect. It’s not the ultimate answer to all of the industry’s issues. However, it is an answer to a number of them, including the abysmally low pay for authors, and the utter lack of creativity, diversity, or variety from Trad Pub’s long-erected walls, and other ills.
So is it evil? No. Indie publishing is at the root of a lot of good in the publishing industry. Overall, it’s a good thing that Indie publishing exists.
So then … what about the future?
Well, publishing will never be the same. But … that’s okay. Trad Pub’s lockdown and control was … not great. And the choice, control, and freedom that Indie brings? I think it balances Trad Pub out. I think it will tear down those walls, and in turn keep them from going up again.
But look at where video games are now. Players have choice. Developers have choice. Indie studios have developed games that have been just as big and successful (even moreso) than the big publishers. But the big publishers haven’t vanished. They’ve adapted. Metamorphized.
I believe book publishing is going the same way. In the future, we’ll see a authors that still stick solely to Trad Pub houses for one reason or another. But they’ll be equal in weight and number, I think, to those that are hybrid, who publish as both Indie and Trad Pub. And there will still be those that stay Indie because they prefer what it gives them.
So no. Indie isn’t evil. No more than the aim of Trad Pub was “evil.” And yeah, there’s definitely a lot of cases to be made for “Trad Pub became something if not evil, then massively parallel” even if there were good intentions at the root. And yeah, if all Trad Pub were to fail, something akin to that could come from Indie.
But I don’t believe they will. Indie brought a lot of good things to publishing. And now, authors have choice. They’ll continue to have that choice. Trad, Hybrid, Indie … who knows? Maybe in another decade we’ll have a fourth option.
And when we do, I hope it’s as good as Indie has been.
So good luck, then. Now get writing.
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