Open Blog Weekend: Self-Publishing Alchemy by Harry Patz, Jr.
Author of The Naive Guys: A Memoir of Friendship, Love and Tech in the Early 1990s
“Everybody says, ‘I should write a book,’ ” James exclaimed between sips of a Guinness. “But you’ve done it.”
In March of this year I enjoyed a cocktail with my relatively new friend, James. I say “new” in that I am neither at the young nor old stage of life, and it does surprise me to meet new friends, especially those you don’t meet through work, your neighborhood, or from your children’s school. James and I met when I interviewed for a job a few years prior; I didn’t join his firm and he has since moved on to a new company. But we kept in touch.
I reminded James that I hadn’t actually done it. At that point, I was about eighty percent complete with the novel. And while I could see daylight, I had so much more to accomplish. The writing itself was an exhilarating, challenging task on its own merit. Aside from that herculean endeavor, I had delayed the coming storm of self-publishing and marketing, and all that I believed it would entail: editing, layout, cover art, websites, social media, branding, and tasks I was sure I had not remotely even considered. My primary imperative remained delivering a good product. At the end of the day, I wanted to hang my hat on writing something of quality, no matter what it sold, or what critic received it positively. My goal has since remained the same, mostly, but I did argue with myself that if I was going to go to all the trouble to actually complete the damn thing, I might as well give my best effort.
A little perspective as to how and why I arrived here, and my learnings, for whatever they may be worth, on the self-publishing path:
When I graduated college in the early 1990s, I proudly wanted to publish my spiffy senior thesis, a self-styled tome on American films set during the World War II era, and their impact on the home front. Fueled by the “A” from one of the university’s prestigious professors, I followed his suggestion and sought out a few local publishing houses to proceed with my work. While this would not be a best seller, surely there was a market for my rich history and vast research of these films, with famous directors like William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra, and luminaries of the cinema from John Wayne, Ingrid Bergman and James Cagney? Of the five small publishing houses that I contacted, I did not receive a single reply. And with the need for money – to pay back student loans and move out of my parents’ house, I began my pursuit of a “real” job and put such foolishness on the back burner.
Ten years later, some time after the millennium, while attempting to climb the corporate ladder, I read an article in The Wall Street Journal about the rise of self-publishing. With desktop and then laptop computers, and relatively cheap production costs, self-publishing was indeed possible. The process, as I remember it, involved sending the manuscript to somewhere in the Midwest, and possibly the author may have had to purchase some inventory of copies and related services. It seemed interesting, or at least easier than throwing spaghetti at the wall with “New York” publishers, even though I lived near the city. Regardless, I had a major problem: I didn’t have anything written to publish. And while I undertook the effort to write the first chapter of what would become The Naïve Guys, I made relatively little progress before life and my corporate career pulled me back into the vortex.
Forwarding again ten years (yes, this is a true story!), I left the corporate role after a great, successful twenty-year run, and while consulting among other business initiatives, I began writing the novel in earnest, albeit part-time. I was not sure I could admit even to myself that I was a writer. Perhaps like an alcoholic, or a tomcatting rogue, I kept my activity to myself, typically late at night or on weekends, and only doing it “when I had time,” meaning it could not be a priority.
No thought was expressly given to how I would publish the novel, but I had “heard” self-publishing was relatively easy. I was an Amazon customer, and iPads and Kindles had entered my lexicon and my (and my family’s) sphere. I had written 25,000 words, and while not necessarily great, I kept chopping away at the wood and believed I was making progress.
Then, I was offered an exciting, new corporate role. I planned to dive into it headfirst, but vowed to pick up the novel in six months, “once I was on my feet.” That six-month mark came and went faster than the Concorde.
Fast-forwarding past an exhilarating year, the new exciting role at that firm was coming to a surprising halt due to its financial problems (the company subsequently ceased operation). With more time on my hands, I decided to pick up the novel, and commit to finishing and publishing it. No excuses.
The writing went as one might imagine. Starting cold after roughly one year and a half was both a blessing and a challenge. I ultimately created a new chapter one, pulled forward from the middle of the novel’s three-year time frame. Some of the devices I used in the first phase of writing were scrapped, as I was not pleased, generally, with what I had written. But I kept much, and made changes, and worked diligently to develop the setting, characters and arc of the story. I put my head down, and kept chopping wood, as I had done previously.
Around the same time, my wife noted an email about a monthly writing group near our vacation home. I decided to attend, although I wasn’t sure what to expect. I brought my in-process novel, but that wasn’t the purpose of the group. The group, usually six to nine members, didn’t bring or share any original writing. Rather, the moderator provided some prompts for time writing exercises, in which we had to complete in fifteen minutes, and then optionally share with the group. For example, she may have shown us an old picture of three rusty chairs, and asked us to imagine the dialogue between them. Through this group, I saw and experienced the writing approaches and styles of many different writers, some with deep imagery, some great storytellers, and some just laugh out loud funny. While learning from these great writers, I also found an outlet to develop my writing muscle, in a “safe place,” and one that had nothing to do with my novel. That is my first learning: find ways to exercise your writing muscle, in outlets that have nothing to do with your primary work. Perhaps there are similar groups in your community, at a high school, local college, or house of worship? If so, you are remiss if you do not explore them!
Thus, by the time I met James in March, I had been at this second phase of “writing” for approximately six months. While I was also consulting, this time I was out in the open about it, completed during daylight hours or whenever it suited me. My wife and a few closest friends knew about it, and cheered me on in ways large and small. I could see daylight to completion of the story, and while I was focused on delivering the best, complete, work I could write, I knew I had to think about the post-writing phase.
By chance one morning I was on Facebook, and saw a post from someone I had worked with at the firm of twenty years. I think she was a friend of a friend at the time (in Facebook terms) but I was not directly connected to her. Smeeta was a wonderful person who had reported into one of my peers but we did not meet in person all that much. She would be, in Malcolm Gladwell’s terms, a “weak tie,” someone you knew, but not particularly well or through another person. Smeeta had posted that Amazon was running a special on tech evangelist (and former Apple exec) Guy Kawasaki’s book, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur on self-publishing. I quickly downloaded a copy to my iPad, and a few days later, also bought a softcover, which has become dog-eared and beaten-down with my markings and bended pages.
My point is not that you must buy APE (I recommend you do; it’s an invaluable resource for self-publishers), but rather the importance of exploring those weak-ties on your self-publishing journey. My second learning: In every aspect of the process, from writing to publishing to marketing and selling your book, I recommend you create some of your own luck by exploring those weak ties. You’ll put yourself in position to meet new and different people who just may help you in ways you cannot fathom. Smeeta has since become a good friend, providing tremendous support and encouragement in many aspects of the entire process. She’s working on her own manuscript now, too; I’ll help her in any way I can.
As the clock turned to April, I began work on the twenty-ninth and final chapter of my novel. Reviewing many of the suggestions in APE, as well as my own exploration, I made the first critical publishing decision: hiring an editor. I was not initially sure where I would find one, but many websites exist for freelancers overall and specifically within the book world. After researching a number of alternatives, and talking to two published authors (again through weak-tie connections from other friends), I decided to use the “Premier” package from a prestigious editing firm. It certainly would not be cheap – my manuscript at the time was over 160,000 words – but I knew both the editing and cover (more on that later) as a self-publisher had to be top-notch.
This comes to my third learning: No matter how much you plan, most steps take longer than you think. So you need to anticipate the unforeseen lags and delays, e.g. build “fudge” time into your project plan. And yes, Project Management is another discipline of the self-publisher, so a sharp focus here would be my fourth learning.
After feedback from some beta-readers, my own edits, re-edits, and edits again – picture a huge California redwood tree sliced and splintered-down into a number two pencil for your SAT exam – I sent in my manuscript to the firm in early-May. They employed a three-step process. Once an editor was chosen, that person reviewed the story for content and some copy-editing; after a phone call with the author, and then acceptance/changes by the author, they performed a second-phase of full copyediting; again the author accepted or rejected the changes. The third and final stage involved a new editor providing a final look with fresh eyes.
My goal in May was to publish the novel “in summer.” I initially thought I’d have a shot at July. And while I was extremely pleased with the quality and support of the editorial team, and would recommend them, the process took longer than I, and perhaps they, initially planned for. I received my final version from them during the last week in July. The process took three full months, which seemed long for me. Again, I was extremely pleased with the quality of the work, although I can probably debate eternally whether the cost was worth it. For me, given that high-quality editing was of the utmost importance, I will declare it was.
The three-month “furlough” during the editing process, while disappointing, provided a positive aspect in that it allowed me to work on other elements of the process. I started building my ever-expanding marketing plan. While having a tech background, I was not a web developer, but found one of the popular web firms and quickly set-up a site, albeit festooned with a “Coming Soon” motif, as I was not totally public with my undertaking. Over time, I learned some tips and tricks (and yes I am still learning!) to make it serviceable and convey key messages. Articles, video interviews (one developed with my friend using a tripod to film us on my patio!) and a section dedicated to music (every chapter title in The Naive Guys is a song) are some of the ways I attempted to bring a unique flair to the site. It certainly is not as “pretty” as if I hired a firm to do it, but for my own understanding I wanted to do it myself. You can be the judge – it’s at www.thenaiveguys.com. I set up a Twitter account as well, but kept it non-public until release neared; more or less the same for Facebook. That’s a fifth (no-brainer) learning – social media presence is not a nice-to have, it’s a must have, even prior to launch. Plenty of other authors are more experienced at it and can provide much better detailed suggestions, but the essence to me is this: you have to create and own your message, and it is a timely, daily and continuous part of self-publishing.
Now about that cover. When I was in the editing process, I was quite worried about finding the “right” cover artist. I knew the exact concept of what I wanted but felt a bit uneasy about crowdsourcing it, which was my tentative plan. Many of the companies in the self-publishing ecosystem offered help to design and implement covers, with a wide variability in cost. How was I to know where to go? I was unable to secure any recommendations from strong or initial weak ties…One day, I was at a new consulting assignment for a small business. The engagement was only to last a week, and during that week, I met another gentlemen who was doing design work for them. He was a graphic artist by trade, and we ended up discussing a plan to work on the cover. The hilarious part (perhaps not) of this discovery was that this firm actually never paid me the few thousand dollars they owed me for my time. But I figured that since I found such a wonderful artist, I was ahead of the game. I actually paid him more than the fee we negotiated since his work was stellar and I honestly believed he deserved it. But with both of our schedules, learning number three came into play again – it took longer than we both thought.
With my two main harbingers of quality – editing and cover “covered,” to use a bad pun, and with my web and social media efforts underway, I now had to consider the next massive steps in the process, layout and the actual printing of the physical books. They are related, particularly when speaking of economics, but they are separate and distinct.
It was never a question for me which book formats for which I would choose to publish. I knew I wanted hardcover, softcover, and eBook versions. All can debate which eBook stores and/or formats to choose. My rationale was this: I travelled on a plane most weeks in my corporate career and loved the benefit of a Kindle and tablet; I also knew the exponential growth of eBooks. I hoped and knew (someday) that I would see a hardcover version of my work in a bookstore, and that my best hope for stocking would be a hardcover; I also wanted to give one to my ninety-two year old dad. And I soon learned that the print-on-demand firm CreateSpace, specialized in softcover. Print-on-demand allowed the author (and others) not to take inventory…and thus made the economics of self-publishing even better.
In APE, Kawasaki and his partner Shawn Welch discuss how to lay out a book using the software Adobe InDesign. They provide a comprehensive overview on how to use the software. And I actually did buy a copy…but after thinking about it (and this is May/June when I am in the editing process, am starting the social media work, and have a few other business matters underway), I actually take one of their suggestions and add it to my list. Thus my sixth learning: Figure out what you are good at, or have the time and aptitude to do well, and where you have the money or wherewithal, potentially outsource. Is it likely you are going to be strong at writing, making cover art, editing, layout, marketing, project management and several other steps? Thus, prioritize what you are going to do on your own and where you should seek help. In my case, great editing and the cover were very important to me, so I made sure I secured the best resources I could here. With a tech but not a design background, I knew I could’ve probably learned InDesign but I would never be an expert.
And while this does not apply to layout individuals and firms exclusively, the seventh learning is a reminder to be mindful of scam artists and every group or individual looking for a large fee or another cut of your “royalty.” Let me back up…many years ago my company participated in trade shows at the Javits Center in New York City. Organized crime essentially controlled the facility, and through lots of “official” maneuvers, would charge a vendor something like $80/hour to plug in a light at the booth. If the vendor didn’t play ball, they were not allowed to exhibit, their booth would get “lost,” or some other ill fate would befall their materials. The point being is that lots of different people have their hand out…you have to decide if what you may receive is worth it.
Back to the book world, whether it is a company promising you X thousand new Twitter (likely robot) users for a fee or a free layout for another 10% of your book, you have to think long and hard – is it worth it? Ten percent may not seem like a lot, but on top of other fees you will end up paying, well, once you do the math you will be surprised how little comes your way, particularly for a “print” book. So you want to preserve as much of that as possible!
I ended up choosing a highly recommended layout firm I found on the web. They produced the interior file (used for both hardcover and softcover) as well as two eBook versions: ePub, the standard most retailers use, and MOBI, Amazon’s implementation. This firm also produced the actual cover files, one for hardcover and one for softcover, once I supplied them with the artist’s final cover art.
This firm had higher one-time fees as opposed to an ongoing percentage from each book sold; my belief (perhaps my gamble) is that I will sell more books in the long-term that will justify their fee. In general, I was very pleased with their work. I initially planned on two weeks for all files to be complete, according to their projection. They met their timeline, but the final files took another week due to some errors on my part (editing typos and minor “nits” that I missed, so these were fixed for a small fee) and theirs (words like horn-rimmed were fine in the interior file but wrong in the eBook files – these were fixed at no-charge.) Thus learning number three came into play again.
At this point we’re in late August, and I am less than ten days away from my self-imposed deadline to publish in the summer. As mentioned above, I had already discovered CreateSpace to print-on-demand my softcover edition. Once the files were initially final from the layout company, I uploaded them on August 13. CreateSpace has great tools and a very simple and easy-to-use online interface, and both their online and phone support is excellent. From August 13, with time for two proofs and fixing the minor layout errors (mine and the layout company’s), I was able to get the final version ready by my date of August 29. Had I not had the minor nits, the CreateSpace process would’ve even been faster.
On the hardcover side, the main print-on-demand firm is IngramSpark, the sister company of Lighting Source, highlighted in APE. As I understand it, IngramSpark was created by Lightning Source for small and self-publishers. Their service was also good, both online and via phone, but I’d say their online systems are a little behind those of CreateSpace. With most of the same issues I had in the finals hours with the softcover, I had in the hard cover and it took a few additional days.
For distribution, I decided on Amazon for all three formats, and Apple iBooks for the eBook. Many authors choose the exclusivity of the Kindle KDP program, where they will sell an eBook exclusively through Amazon for 90 days for additional marketing benefits. I have not yet, but may consider it. I’ve also been able to get into a few local independent bookstores, typically through consignment.
I didn’t cover much of my marketing plan, which is just under way, but I can tell you the next and final learning comes from Steely Dan’s song “Dr. Wu.” The line in the song is “Have you done all you can do?” And each day, my reminder to myself, and my eighth learning is that you must keep pushing, keep doing more, keep chopping wood, because there are always more avenues to sell and promote your book. As my ninety-three year old father might say, “The book ain’t gonna sell itself!”
As I exit the first six weeks of marketing and selling my book, the two most promising tools I have used are NetGalley and Goodreads. NetGalley is a paid service where you can provide a close to final, or final book for review from book bloggers, academics and aficionados. Becoming a member of the Independent Book Publishers Association for a small fee allows you a number of great benefits, including reduced rates and promotions for efforts such as NetGalley. To date, I have received three reviews, all of which were four stars, from NetGalley book bloggers among the sixty-nine (and counting) that have downloaded it.
I haven’t spent a lot of time on reviews, but yes they are important. Obviously your beta readers should be encouraged to provide a fair, but not necessarily great review of your work on Amazon, and many other channels exist for reviews, including paid reviews, major media, and through NetGalley book bloggers, as an example.
Through NetGalley, I met one of those book bloggers, Melissa of The Book Binder’s Daughter, who also stressed the importance of Goodreads, a site for book readers and recommendations. Melissa provided tremendous suggestions on raising my profile through Goodreads, and as of today, one hundred and twenty-eight readers have entered a chance to win a free signed copy, and sixty-nine have added it to their bookshelves.
I’m experimenting with some Facebook ads, which provide intriguing targeting abilities. And I am seeding some influential “luminaries” and have a few promotions planned in the next few months. From mostly word-of-mouth the past few weeks, The Naive Guys is off to a good start, but I have much more to do and learn.
In an essay such as this, one cannot do justice to all the items to consider when self-publishing. As I mentioned, APE is a very good resource, and there are many others. These are the highlights, lowlights and learnings from my process. I am still in it, learning and making mistakes daily. I’ve fulfilled a dream of my own, and having a hell of time doing it. And yes I can now say to my friend James, “I’ve done it,” regardless of how many I sell.