Apologia per story sua
This post is not a manual for self-publishers:
- there isn't room for such a thing in a K5 story
- there already exist several excellent, resources for self-publishers.
- I can't tell you the right way to self-publish; I can only tell you what I've done-and much of what I've done has been manifestly stupid.
So this is no guidebook. Rather I hope to stimulate some discussion, answer a few questions, and get some answers to questions of my own.
This is mostly an essay about "publishing" in the traditional sense of books printed on paper. I welcome any related discussion about ebooks, web publishing, intellectual property & digital copyrights and so forth that may come up in comments. But when I say "publishing" herein, I'm talking about old-fashioned books.
I published my novel Acts of the Apostles in late 1999, the novella Cheap Complex Devices in late 2002 and an illustrated dystopian phantasmagoria called The Pains in late 2008. Depending on how you reckon, this venture has been a stunning success, a qualified failure, or something in between. I've sold about 6k copies, total, of my books. In any event, I'm working on my fourth novel Creation Science, and I intend to publish it before the summer comes (unless a big publisher buys the rights first; see below).
All of these books are available for download from my site Wetmachine, so you can read them for free.
Background: a tad more on novels and why I published them myself
My novel ("AofA") is a geeky paranoid technothriller ostensibly about nanomachines and Gulf War Syndrome. This Amazon review sums it up pretty well:
This book is a far-fetched story about mad geniuses, cutting edge technology, world domination and a couple of lovable misfits (computer geeks, at that) who try to thwart them. In broad daylight, you know it can't happen, but after dark you're not so sure. I couldn't put it down. It's the book Neal Stephenson and Robert Ludlum might have written if one of the evil geniuses of this book had cloned them into one consciousness.
I've written elsewhere about what motivated me to write this book, and about how the process of writing and publishing AofA nearly destroyed my family. It is frankly embarrassing--make that humiliating--to admit how insane the whole deal was. However, my family and I seem to have weathered the ordeal OK- or actually we've come out a whole lot stronger than we went in. But here's the key point: I only wrote and self-published AofA because I was nuts. I'm glad I did it, but if you're not nuts you should think twice before choosing me as a role model.
I tried very hard indeed to find a publisher for Acts of the Apostles. I had a very well respected literary agent representing me & he connected with some very well respected movie-rights agents. Together that team put in about $20,000 of work & materials on behalf of my book. We worked on it for three solid years. The agents covered those expenses out of pocket, by the way. They really thought it was going to be a blockbuster book/movie hit. But the point is, self-publishing was not my first choice.
I didn't try at all to find publishers for my second and third books because I knew that they would be an even harder sell than my first book -- they're kind of what you might call "quirky".
I reckon the books critical successes. They have received received dozens, perhaps hundreds, of glowing reviews, and Acts won the Writer's Digest competition for best self-published "genre" novel out of a field of 320. Acts is surely not the best book anybody ever wrote, but it ain't bad for a first novel, and I think it's on its way to status as a minor geekoid classic. Similarly for the other books. I've sold about 6,000 copies of them in 10 years. Not exactly Tom Clancy/Michael Crichton numbers. But I've sold enough copies to more than cover my expenses. I've probably netted $35k or so from my efforts, maybe more, so I hesitate to call the whole thing a failure.
Reasons to self-publish
There are countless reasons why you might choose to publish a book yourself. But largely I think they fall into these six categories:
- to build an audience that will attract a "real" publisher
The emotional argument for self-publishing
You wrote the damn thing. You put your heart and soul into it. Who knows why you wrote it. Maybe you wanted to make a million bucks; maybe you wanted to exorcise some demons; maybe you wanted to alert humankind to some great truth that it had overlooked; maybe you only wanted to connect with one other person on planet earth. In any event, after you wrote the damn thing you tried to find a publisher who would bring this book to its audience. Alas, no such publisher could be found. The rejection letters piled up. Finally you said, "Fuckit, I'll publish it myself." You don't care whether or not you make money on the venture. You want your book out there.
This is a classic and noble reason to self-publish. For similar reasons James Joyce self-published Ulysses and Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass. Some of the greatest poet-writer-geniuses of the English language would be unknown today if they had not published and promoted their own work. Their passion turned them into publishers. Certainly my own decision to self-publish was more emotional than logical (although all other reasons apply to me as well). I believe that the emotional reason is sufficient to justify the venture-as long as you can afford to absorb the costs if the book tanks.
The financial argument for self-publishing
Most writers who are published by a traditional publisher get at most "a buck or two" per sale of a hardcover edition of their book-which may sell for $25 or more retail. Paperbacks pay even less. Writers generally make much less than a dollar per paperback sold. Sometimes they only make pennies. The publisher's cut is larger. But when you're the publisher and the writer, you get both cuts. For example, my books have cost between $2.35 and $3.00 (each) to manufacture. The cover price of Acts is $15. Amazon pays me $6.75 per copy sold; bookstores pay me $9; I sell AofA in person for $10 and on my website for $15. On average I've probably taken in $8.35 per book, which evaluates to $6/book gross profit. I like the sound of "six dollars per book" a lot better than "pennies per book." Similar numbers apply to the other books.
(Of course "gross" isn't "net," and I have plenty of expenses. Because I am a lousy businessman I don't always spend wisely--moreover I am such a lousy record-keeper that don't even really know how much I've spent to produce and market my books. Nevertheless it's clear that I'm taking in a lot more per book than the typical writer does. And furthermore, once the fixed costs have been repaid, the net per book gets much nicer. In other words, once I sell enough to pay back my investment, the rest is gravy.)
It follows that a self-published book that sells well is worth a whole lot more to the writer/publisher than a conventionally published book. It was financial considerations like these, by the way, that caused Mark Twain to self-publish Huckleberry Finn.
In deciding to take the plunge into self-publishing, one of my inspirations was Tim O'Reilly. Tim and I worked together in 1985 documenting a realtime UNIX for a now long-defunct computer company. I well remember being in a meeting with Tim when both of us were wearing shoes that had holes in the soles. Both of us were fathers with young families, and neither of us had enough money to get our shoes repaired, much less buy a new pair. But Tim founded O'Reilly & Associates and went into self-publishing. He mortgaged his house to pay for the first print run of "UNIX in a Nutshell" and he courted bankruptcy for quite a while.
Today Tim can buy whatever shoes he wants. There are plenty of other examples of shrewd self-publishers who became rich. If you are both a good writer and a good self-promoter, there is no doubt that you can get more rich, and more rich quicker, if you are your own publisher.
Of course, a best-seller doesn't happen by magic. Even if you've published the best book ever, when you're the publisher you have two big headaches: marketing and distribution-that is, letting the world know about your book, and making it easy for the world to buy many many copies. I'm not going to talk much about marketing and distribution in this essay-there are plenty of good books on these subjects. But I will assert that given the positive critical reception that my books have received, had I only some decent distribution they probably would have sold many more copies than they have. And better marketing would have helped too.
The political argument for self-publishing
As is news to nobody, transnational megacorporations are trying to take over the world. Some people (like me) believe that they are about to succeed in so doing (if they have not done so already). To further their agenda, megacorporations need to own and control all media including books, magazines, movies, newspapers, radio, movies, television, and the entire Internet. Once this consolidation is in place, the medium indeed becomes the message-and the message is "don't worry, be happy, everything is under control."
In a corporatocracy the only function of information is control, and the easiest form of control is entertainment. Thus "news" becomes "reality television" as the so-called watchdog media mutates into "Cops," and truth becomes not merely subordinate to titillation but an archaic and fundamentally incomprehensible concept. Thus the corporatocracy-by licensing owning, patenting, restricting and scientifically manipulating the language of public discourse-not only makes anticorporate political discussion illegal, it also makes anticorporate thought virtually unthinkable.
Therefore many people feel that it is politically bad, and probably immoral, to allow one's works to be published a megacorporation. They believe that writers have a moral imperative to publish their own works. One of the key spokespersons for this point of view (which I find very compelling) is Jim Munoe (who was, I believe, a key member of the early Adbuster movement.) Jim's website is NoMediaKings.
The artistic/pragmatic argument for self-publishing
When you sign a contract with a publisher, you surrender control:
So the artistic argument for self-publishing is, "I can make this book better than you can," and the pragmatic argument is, "I can make this book faster then you can, and I can sell it better than you can."
- you surrender control of your words-an editor can overrule you;
- you surrender control of the book's appearance-many publishers don't even consult the writer about the cover, book design or format, never mind paper stock or typeface. You may not have control over your own biography;
- you surrender control over price;
- You surrender control over schedule-the book comes out when the publisher says it will come out (generally 18 months after it would come out if you published it yourself);
- You surrender control over marketing, distribution and whether to put the book on your own website for people to read for free;
- you surrender your own personal schedule, your ability to cut deals, and ultimately, you surrender control over when to give up-and this may be the most crucial surrender of all. Because a "real" publisher gives each book a short finite time to "take off," and those books that do not take off are dropped like a bad habit, but a self-publisher can push her own book as long as she feels like pushing it and thereby allow a book time to find its audience (I'm still looking for mine).
Books on self-publishing (cited above) do a good job explaining how self-publishers can publish more quickly and do a better job marketing their books than traditional publishers can. Dan Poynter, Tom & Marilyn Ross et al cover the financial-pragmatic angle well. But I think the artistic-pragmatic argument is compelling also.
In my own case, I had a telling flirtation with a major publisher. Sometime before I decided to become my own publisher I was invited to Random House, in New York, to speak with a senior editor and her chief associate editor. I spoke with them for more than an hour and it was very flattering. They loved the "thriller" feel of my book, and clearly they thought it was hip (hip enough for middle America, anyway). So they were trying to suss whether they could make me into the Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton of the Internet Age. It was clear that if they made an offer for the rights to my book it would be big offer-perhaps a quarter of a million dollars.
But they were concerned that Acts of the Apostles was "too technical" to appeal to a mainstream audience. Was I amenable, they wanted to know, to rewriting parts of AofA to make it "more accessible?" What they wanted to know, in other words, was whether I was willing to whore myself and dumb-down my writing to make it more palatable for the hardly-literate masses.
So of course I said "YES!!! I'll make it as stupid as you want!!" Alas, despite my eagerness to sell out to the corporate cabal, nobody ever made an offer.
In retrospect, although I wish I had more money in the bank today than I do (actually any money in the bank would be nice), I think I was lucky indeed that Random House didn't make an offer that would have required me to put my name on a book of which I was not proud. I'm glad I didn't dumb it down.
My favorite example of a self-publisher motivated by artistic integrity is Edward Tufte. According to the story, (which I have not verified) Tufte founded Graphics Press to publish his books not because he couldn't find a publisher, but because he couldn't find a publisher who would agree to let him design his own books. When you consider that his books are about, among other things, book design, you would think that publishers would have seen the wisdom of letting him call the shots about their design. Tufte evidently was very insistent about the texture of the paper, the color of the ink, the dimensions of the pages, and so forth. Not finding a publisher to agree to his terms, he became his own publisher. And if you ever hold one of his books in your hands I think you'll agree that there's something to be said for the whole gestalt. His books are very cool, and somehow personal, in the way that a painting is personal.
Likewise for me and my books. I consider the first three books part of a larger work that I call "Mind Over Matter". AofA by John F.X. Sundman is a technothriller of the Clancy/Crichton stripe; CCD by John Compton Sundman is a collection of quirky (in other words, barely comprehensible) novellas written by AI software constructs--hardly the type of thing to appeal to the typical Clancy reader, and The Pains, by John Damien Sundman, is different in tone and style from the other two.
So in other words Mind over Matter is an integral whole comprised of different parts aimed at entirely different types of readers, and no traditional publisher in its right corporate mind would even consider such a project (well, a traditional publisher did publish Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, so maybe there's hope.) But in general, traditional publishers would tell me to use my second book to build my "brand identity" as a writer of thrillers. This is the model of Stephen King (gothic thrillers), Tom Clancy (military/technothrillers), John Grisham (legal thrillers) and of virtually all successful "genre" writers. They never intentionally confuse their established readership. I, on the other hand, confuse my readers deliberately.
Why? Because I damn well like the three books together, in the way that some people like pickles and ice cream. Moreover they work on each other at a distance in kind of a gravitational way. So I've called them a set and published them under three different (middle) names. You can do that when you're the boss.
The experiential argument for self-publishing
OK, this last argument takes us into very subjective territory. It is my unsubstantiated belief that being a writer/publisher is more fun, or at least more unpredictable, than simply being a writer. The exigencies of promoting yourself and your work force you to engage the world in ways that you could avoid if somebody else were in charge of marketing and sales. In my own case these "exigencies" were certainly good for my health. During the writing of my book I had become isolated, reclusive, and abusive of alcohol. I had basically crawled into a cave. Self-publishing accelerated my emergence from this dangerous cave. And it's a lot more fun out here than it was in there.
Consider this chain: when my books were newly back from the printer, I called up my old friend Geoff Arnold. Geoff arranged for me to sell my books at Sun Microsystems's Burlington campus. At the signing, Geoff told me that I should visit Softpro, a local bookstore (since gone under). So I did that, and Softpro's owner, Rick Treitman, bought a dozen copies of my book and told me that I should introduce myself to
Keith Dawson, so I did that. Keith put me on to Tim McEachern, organizer of the
Geek Pride Festival. I went to the Geek Pride Festival, and there sold mass quantities of my novel. Moreover I made three other significant connections at GeekPride: I met Jack Burlingame, editor Boston Software News (now defunct), who gave me work , connections and publicity (he serialized the novel in the newspaper); I got written up in the Boston Herald, which led to an invitation to appear on a talk radio show about "geek culture"; and most significantly, I put a copy of my book in to the hands of Rob Malda, also known as
CmdrTaco. Taco passed his book to Hemos, who wrote a short a
mostly positive notice for Slashdot. And Hemos kept a link to my book up on the Slashdot home page for a long time-two months or so, if I recall correctly.
Hemos's slashdot review marked a new stage in my writerly career. Being Slasddotted gave me credibility as a geek author (about the same time an even more glowing review came out on
Geek.com ). Andrew Leonard, who explains geekdom to the National Public Radio crowd, wrote a very nice article about me on
Salon.com. The Salon article was noted by some producers of an Australian television show about technology and society, who paid my train fare to from Boston to New York so that they could interview me. I appeared as a talking (bald) head on two episodes of their series, and after each show was broadcast I participated in a chat with Australian TV viewers. . .
One thing led to another, and it was fun.
The Audience-building argument for Self-Publishing
Although some people are of the opinion that publishing your own book sends a signal to publishers that you're a loser, that's never really been true, and is less true now than ever. A little googling can find for you lots of stories of writers who were contacted by publishers who had noted their self-published work. In fact, it happened to me.
In 2005 or so, an editor from Random House called me out of the blue on the basis of the success of my novel Acts of the Apostles. I met with him a few times, in New York and in Boston, to discuss a possible two book deal -- a reprint of Acts, plus a new book. But he didn't much care for the book I was then working on (The Pains), and I had a full-time job & didn't have time or energy to develop another thriller, as he wanted. But certainly the fact that a Random House editor called me out of the blue kind of blows up any argument that my self-publishing destroyed any hope of my being taken seriously.
My current project Creation Science is a thriller like Acts and my strategy now is to make this next book as good as I can & market it as hard as I can. I'm hoping it will sell well. And then, maybe, I can attract some serious attention from a serious publisher, who, in my fondest dream, will publish all four of my books. If no publisher comes calling, I'll hope at least to make some money the self-publishing way. With ten years experience, I'm getting better at at least some aspects of the process.
Reasons not to self-publish
Very briefly, there are three main reasons not to try self-publishing:
This last point is worth noting for all the right-brain (or is it left-brain) types like myself. I keep lousy, sucky records. I really only pay attention to orders. When an order comes in, whether it's for one book or a hundred, I make sure that the right number of books go to the right address, inscribed to order.
You can lose money, perhaps a lot of money. I spent $12,000 to print my first book and $5,000 on my website, for example ($5K on website???? Don't ask). Had my book not sold, I would be left holding a very large bag.
- marketing and distributing the book are a lot of work. How much work? A full-time job's worth of work, if you do it correctly (I don't). What kind of work? That's a whole nother K5 story.
Sure, I enjoy some aspects of self-publishing. But after one's 15th trade show, one's tenth street fair, standing at a table piled with books and copies of reviews, calling out to passers-by, "Hey, come check out my novels" for the 1,000th time, the luster kind of wears off. I would gladly accept a (good) deal from a known publishing house. I would be very happy indeed if my books were to be available in bookstores (without special ordering).
- book keeping.
But I do a lousy job tracking my expenses, following up on invoices (bookstores owe me about $500 in unpaid invoices), etc, etc. And when it comes to taxes, I was born in the wrong century. I don't get it, I don't want to get it, I cannot get it. I don't understand the first goddamn thing about what taxes I'm supposed to pay, so I make my best guess. I suspect that I am either cheating the IRS, or, more likely, cheating myself. But I don't know and I don't care, because life is too short for me to spend any time figuring all that shit out. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.
This is not a problem so long as my book(s) basically go nowhere, but if they ever take off and become best-sellers, then by god I may jump off a bridge simply to avoid the paperwork that goes with success.
A Whole New World? Maybe, but I don't fink so; not yet anyway
Since 2002 the main thing that's changed is that the whole book publishing industry is being squeezed like a pumpkin in a vise by the same forces (viz, the internets) that have squashed the newspaper biz .
Some prognosticators are giddy with the notion that another publishing world is possible, but I'm not quite convinced of that yet--although I am hopeful.
Summary: What do publishers provide that I can't provide?
There are basically three real things of value that "real" publishers provide to writers. In addition there are two things of theoretical value that publishers provide to writers, and one thing of theoretical value that publishers provide to readers & writers alike.
Things of real value that publishers provide to writers:
Things of theoretical value that publishers provide to writers:
- Manufacturing & logistics. Publishers get the books printed & warehoused & shipped.
- Distribution. Publishers get books into bookstores. This is nigh impossible for self-publishers. Self-publishers can get their books into bookstores on a case-by-case basis, through individual sales calls to store book-buyers. But national or even widespread distribution is out of the question.
- Advances. Publishers pay advances, sometimes big advances, to keep writers financially solvent while they write their books.
- Editorial support & guidance.
- Imprimatur. If your book comes from a brand name publisher, readers not familiar with your work are more likely to take it seriously than if you publish it yourself. This helps readers to find good books amid an ocean of crappy books, and helps writers by giving their book a recognized stamp of approval.
Self-publishing in the digital age
Digital publishing & the intarweb are in the process of ripping the traditional book publishing books business to shreds. As a side effect, some self-publishing novelists like myself are, at least to some extent, finding a niche in which we can make money (although in most cases not a lot of money ) without giving the vig to the publishing houses. Here's how I, as a self-publisher, regard items 1-6 above.
Manufacturing & Logistics. I arrange for book design & layout & covers myself; I arrange printing, & I store & ship books from my house. Print runs for my books have been 5k, 2k, and 2k, of which I've sold about 6.5k copies. So I now have to warehouse 2.5k books in my house. At about 50 books per carton, that's 50 cartons. That's a bother, but not too big a deal. Also, as more and more books appear in electronic form (text, audio, whatever) the manufacturing process becomes easier, and the advantages of the big publisher over the self-publisher diminish.
If I ever hit the big time & start selling my books by the the tens of thousands, logistics will become a problem, probably. On the other hand, print-on-demand technology is rapidly improving and costs are coming down. So maybe in the future logistics will become much, much easier. In any event, it's a problem I would like to have.
2) Distribution. I sell my books in three main ways: through Amazon.com, in person at geek trade shows, and through my website. Amazon takes a big cut but provides access to a large market; personal appearances are not especially lucrative (it costs money to get to them & I sell books at a discount) but they do connect me with readers who often become fans and auxiliary marketers. Selling through my website is the best: highest $$ return, least hassle. The problem is, how do I convince people to buy from my website? True, I have sold thousands of books that way. But an equal number of books through Amazon. People generally trust Amazon more than they trust some guy on the Internet. The only way around that is to continue to make happy customers from people who buy directly from me & trust that the word will percolate out eventually.
3) Advances. Well, until very recently, publishers owned this one. But recently I've turned to crowd-sourcing on the Internet, and so far it's working out OK. As of this moment, I've raised a $5,300 advance from the internets for my next book Creation Science. That's not a whole lot, but it's a good start. And it comes with very little work, compared to the effort of shopping a manuscript, through an agent, to publishers and then waiting weeks or months to see if you get an offer. I've raised that $5,000 in 16 days.
4) Editorial support.
Back in the olden times, publishing houses provided lots of editorial support and guidance to writers. Those days are largely over. In this century, editors at publishing houses are, generally speaking, talent finders and project managers. They do little editing; that service is a often provided by the writer's literary agent; or, the writer may hire an editor independent of the publishing house -- exactly as a self-published writer would.
As a self-publisher I can hire perfectly qualified editors, proof-readers, consultants, etc. Actually, I can generally get these services provided for free from my readers. On my kickstarter project, a new novel I'm working on called Creation Science, people are actually willing to pay a premium for an opportunity to see early drafts & make editorial suggestions. I see no real value to me as a writer from the publishing houses in this department.
In theory, publishing houses provide marketing support for books. In practice, however, most books are left to find their own market, and any substantial marketing, for other than "big name" writers, is done by the writer, not the publisher. Marketing is becoming ever more of an authorial function. Whether you're your own publisher or not, you're probably going to have a blog, you're going to have a twitter account, you're going to try to get yourself on radio shows, etc. It's true that publishing houses will provide SOME additional help in this department. But not a lot, as far as I can tell.
6) Imprimatur. If a book comes out of a recognized brand-name publishing house, the reader, in theory, has a reasonable expectation that the book won't be total crap. Contrariwise, if a book is self-published, the reader has a reasonable expectation that the book WILL be crap. Certainly I've encountered this attitude lots of times: "your book is self-published? It must suck."
However, lots of books that come from big name houses are indeed crap, and lots of self-published books are very good, and lots of people know this. So the value of the brand name is not, to readers, all that great, and in my opinion it's declining as more writers are becoming their own publishers, for reasons given in my original essay.
The main way I try to counterbalance the lack of imprimatur for my books is by making them available (under Creative Commons license) for free download. That way I can say to people, "don't take my word for it; go read 'em for yourself." Some proportion of people--I have no idea what percentage, but it's non-zero -- start by reading my book(s) online, decide they like it, and order a printed copy.
Will this circumvention & (in some cases) evisceration of the book-publishing houses ultimately prove to be a good thing? Or will it merely lead us down the path to a world where books & other substantial works of literary art no longer exist; no novels or epistles or complex thoughts, only text messages & tweets?
I don't know.
But check out these fantastic videos, in which Roland the Robot explains how publishing works today. They're funnier than fuckall, and 100% true.