Bren’s Adventures in Self Publishing

In January of last year, I decided that my “theme” for 2012 would be “the year that I re-invent myself.” And I decided to use self-publishing to do it.

Back in the last months of 2011, I re-opened a novel that I started writing back in 2004 and finished in 2006; by early 2012 it was in a shape that I felt comfortable showing to the world. And so, with the help and encouragement of a few friends, I published “Fellwater” – and I became a fiction writer. Then in October I published a sequel, called “Hallowstone”.

Also in 2011, I invented a social strategy game, for use as an exercise in a course on theories of social justice which I teach at the college. Most of my students really liked it, and some encouraged me to write it up and publish it. So in 2012 I wrote it up, created an expanded edition, hired an artist, and published it under the name “Iron Age – Council of the Clans”. I also published an essay on the philosophy of soft power gaming. And so I became a strategy game designer.

Those were fun projects. In some ways they brought me back to interests that I followed when I was a teenager, but which I set aside in my mid 20’s for lots of complicated reasons.

But those projects also showed me how time consuming and expensive self publishing can be. So for another self-publishing project, I turned to a web-based fundraising company called Kickstarter, and I raised almost $17,000 from more than 700 supporters to create “Clear and Present Thinking”, a college-level textbook in logic and critical reasoning. This project was also driven by the observation that college textbooks are way too expensive, and students just don’t have the money for them anymore. That project is now in post-production; and when it is released I’ll be able to add “logician” and “social media campaign manager” to my growing CV. And the final text will be offered to the world, electronically for free, and in print for the lowest possible price.

But I think the biggest lesson I learned from these self-publishing projects is this one. Self-publishing is giganormously time-consuming! And I am just one man, not a company, and I have a day job as a professor, so I have to work on these projects in my free time, of which I have very little (because I’m a professor, which means I’m at work basically all the time). And although these projects were very rewarding personally, they also involved a lot of material effort, for surprisingly little material return, so far.

Regarding the novels: I listed my book with Amazon’s KDP Select program, which allows me to create free giveaway events, and also offers me a royalty whenever readers “borrow” an e-book from their virtual lending library service. I ran a two-day freebie for Fellwater in the spring, and listed it on two websites which advertise such events. Around 12,000 people downloaded the book in 48 hours. I was thrilled! But the purpose of such freebie events is to hopefully generate reader reviews, and sales in the weeks to follow. Almost all the reviews which followed were positive, but a number of readers identified proofreading errors, and that hurt the book’s popularity.

In fact I did hire a proofreader to check both books for spelling and grammar errors, typos, and continuity errors. (These things appear easily enough when doing a lot of copy/pasting of text during the final editing phase.) But I gave the editing job to a fellow who offered to do it for $300 per book, and to return the text to me after less than a week. Which he did. But he did a seriously shoddy job: he even introduced new errors into the text! A ‘fixed’ version of Fellwater is now up on Amazon, although it still might have a few mistakes in it anyway because I did the second round of proofreading myself. And I am negotiating with a new editor to work on Hallowstone.

Furthermore, in the six weeks that followed, my royalties from actual sales of Fellwater amounted to about $250, and after eight weeks sales had dwindled to about nine or ten copies a month. In December, I ran a three-day freebie event for Hallowstone, and listed it on a dozen websites which publicize such events. But this time only around 3,300 people downloaded the book, and six weeks later my royalties for sales of both novels came to about $100. The reviews were very good, but again, it felt like a lot of work for very little material return.

The lesson: next time I do a self-publishing project, I won’t do it mostly alone, as I did these ones. I’ll assemble a team of friends to help me, especially with publicity. As mentioned, I’ve a really good day job, and I don’t have the time to do that publicity work alone. I could, I suppose, quit that day job, and do writing and promotions full time. But that would be a very big risk. I’ve seen what the job market is like for academics these days, and I’m convinced that if I quit my job as a professor, I’ll never work in the academy ever again.

Regarding “Clear and Present Thinking”: my biggest problem there occurred near the end of the production process when one of the people collaborating with me to write the text had to leave the project. I can’t hold it against him: he left because his wife was pregnant, and it is clearly morally right for him to care more about his wife and child than about my textbook. (They’ve had their baby now, by the way. A girl!) But the practical consequence for me was that I had to recruit new collaborators, and scale down the nature of the project somewhat. And it also made me late with the delivery of the rewards for my Kickstarter backers. I informed them of the situation as it developed, as honestly and as completely as I could. They have been very forgiving. 85% of KStart backer rewards are delivered late anyway, one of them told me. I am very grateful for their patience. But I still feel a little bit chagrined that the project didn’t turn out exactly as I had hoped. Next time, I will be much better able to estimate the time and the costs of a crowd-funded project.

After all these experiences, I am now convinced of the following: The self-published books which become hugely popular and which make millions of dollars for their authors are of two types:

– Books which are promoted for years by a professional publicity team hired by the author, and
– Books which get lucky.

Note that it has nothing to do with the book’s quality. Good books don’t sell themselves on quality alone. And bad books can be promoted widely and can get lucky too. I feel confident in the quality of my books, but when it’s late at night and I haven’t had a human conversation with anyone for a week, I end up worrying that they’re not selling because they suck. Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t; but in either case, self-publishing makes it harder to keep myself confident in my own skills!

Actually, that self-doubt also makes me work harder to produce better quality books. Writing philosophy, whether as fiction or nonfiction, is my calling, after all. You could say it’s my way of making love to Herself.

So, what have I planned for the future?
 I’ve got another strategy game in the works, and a third novel is planned for The Fellwater Tales. I’ll probably self publish those too, although I have been sending queries for my novels to literary agents who accept modern fantasy. (If you know one, or if you are one, let’s talk!)

I also have two nonfiction projects planned. One is very close to completion; the other is still a pile of handwritten notes. I will continue to work with Moon Books / John Hunt Publishing for my nonfiction.

And, I might assemble a team of people around me to help with the publicity. Because I don’t have enough money to hire a professional publicist. And even if I did quit my day job to be my own publicist full-time, it would be irrational to count on luck and my own effort alone. And I would want those team-mates to prosper as well, and to share in whatever rewards the effort returns. So watch this space. Plans are being planned. Schemes are being schemed. Opportunities may soon opportune. I’ve re-invented myself, and I’m about to do so again. Here we go!

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3 Responses to Bren’s Adventures in Self Publishing

  1. Hobbes says:

    Would you agree that most of what you end up doing yourself with a self-publication you still need to do with a traditional publication (via an external publishing house)? They might help with the editing and layout, but you still end up doing most of your own publicity anyways. The publishing houses don’t send you on book tours unless they know it’ll be a successful venture.

    Hiring a professional team of people to help you with the marketing only adds to your risk factor, so I think you’re better off plugging away at it yourself and learning from it.

    • Brendan says:

      The trad publishers do all the layout and design and editing, and they assume the cost of printing and shipping. When I assumed all those costs myself last year, I discovered how big those costs are, let me tell you!

      But I was really thinking of hiring friends of mine, rather than hiring a company or agency. In theory, friends of mine might know my work well enough, and have time enough to comment about my work on their social networks once a week, or bring flyers to the events they’re attending, or (if they are already vendors) sell copies of my books on my behalf at events I can’t attend, etc. Things that wouldn’t normally take more than an hour or two each month. But if 20 or more friends are doing that for me, in return for appropriate compensation, that might be more than what I can do alone.

  2. Idalia says:

    That’s an amazing amount of work in a single year, Bren. I would consider suggesting spread it out a little more, but I know your drive well enough that I don’t think you could slow down! So yes, I’m sure help with marketing would be pretty darn valuable to say the least. Also, I actually saw this as a FB boost from Phaedra Bonewits and that’s no small thing!

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