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What I’ve Learned From 10 Years Of Writing & Independent Publishing
It’s been a long time since the writing bug first bit me. Before I started blogging seriously, I had always been writing fiction.
In second grade I wrote my first short-story. It was about a man who befriends a robot which allows him to quit his nerve-wracking office-job because now the robot does everything from cleaning the dishes to wearing his tie. Looking back, this may have been a kind of premonition of my own career as an adult. Sadly, I still don’t have a robot — and dishes don’t wash themselves — but technology has enabled me to live in a way that would be possible without it.
But let’s get back to writing. The excitement of storytelling, the magic of seeing people, places and ideas pop into existence, word after word has stayed with me. I’ve always loved to write. However, it was during my adolescence years that I became aware of another, less exciting aspect of writing.
Get Published Or Die Trying
As a teenager I used to print out stories and give them to my family and friends. Sometimes they read them, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they liked them, sometimes they didn’t. Circulation was obviously limited, but I still enjoyed the process.
Later I created a little webpage and uploaded the stories there, too. (Think Geocities, blinking GIFs and green text on purple background.)
In my university years I used to send out stuff to a few publishing houses. But it was taking too much time. I wanted to write, not to peddle my writing and plead “Here, Sir! Please, Sir!” to people I didn’t even know.
It was about the same time that a friend connected me with an organizer of Berlin techno parties. They wanted to create a booklet filled with memorabilia around the local techno-scene, collecting the stories people told each other in the wee hours of the morning during after-parties so that they wouldn’t get erased the day after by the collective hang-over.
Despite not being particularly affiliated with this scene, I agreed to give them some stories loosely spun around the everyday craziness of life in Berlin. They agreed. The book was published. When pay-day came, the person responsible for the project had dropped off the radar. My emails eventually found him in Dubai of all places, and against all odds, eventually I got paid.
After it was all through, I could finally go back to writing. And so I did.
Public Readings & Indie-Printing
A few years later I participated in and organized public readings in local cafes and bookshops, taking me with me a small stack of independently printed story-collections and selling them here and there.
Trying to layout those publication perfectly resulted in a lot of wasted ink and paper, but eventually I learned how to force even the crudest word processing software to produce something that fit nicely on any kind of paper.
On top of that I spent many more hours discussing the differences between coil bindings and glue bindings with the staff of copy-shops, observing the copying-process (quite meditative, actually) until I would start perforating my writing through binding machines or waiting for the glue binding to toast — Aah, the smell of hotmelt in the morning!
And as much as I enjoyed my apprenticeship in the secret mysteries of paper jams and esoteric printer control panels, after a while I stopped the whole thing. The sales were slow and it was taking too much time and effort — resources that I would have happily pooled into writing new stuff. Needless to say, besides attending university and my day-job routine as an assistant teacher, time was scarce to begin with.
So I started publishing on my homepage again. It was simple, fast and clean. The moment I had finished something I could simply upload it and it was available world-wide — which didn’t mean that anyone would read it, of course. Also, if there were any later fixes to be done, I could easily overwrite the old version with a new one.
Now that I’d stopped messing around with obscure publishing deals and printing stuff on my own I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands. Time that mostly went into writing. And it was only in recent years that I’ve found ways to actually sell publications online.
The proliferation of Amazon’s Kindle definitely helped to a) make ebooks more popular and b) encourage one-click buying but even apart from that it’s become relatively easy to offer PDFs or EPUBs for sale, at least technically.
Enter, The Online World
I can’t show you any “100% non-photoshopped proof” of my “six figure ebook-income” or any such nonsense which is unfortunately still a widespread practice among the self-described “marketing gurus” and indie-publishing princes of our times.
But here are a few things I’d tell anyone that is seriously considering to publish and sell their writings online:
1. Don’t Expect Anyone To Care
Having something published online means it’s theoretically visible to millions of people. Practically, it’s often invisible. If noone knows it’s there, noone will read it.
Sounds harsh? Well … c’est la vie.
The most important thing, therefore, is not to generate sales by any means but to build an audience, first!
2. Growing Slowly Instead Of Expecting Quick Results
Building an audience takes time. I’ve seen a gradual growth over the years which slowly picks up the bigger an audience becomes. But if you want to make a full-time living by selling your writing this way, be prepared to be patient.
Having said that, you should definitely consider blogging as a means of building a base from where you can reach out to people.
3. The Wild West Of Pricing
If you publish any kind of ebook the obvious question is always: How to price it? At least for the moment, we indie-publishers are faced with a pricing-pandemonium. Many writers are mad because the $0.99 model as seen on Amazon is supposedly destroying the value of an ebook.
On the other hand, it’s not all that bad. The very idea of what a book is and what people are willing to pay, is deeply changing. Maybe, it will stabilize itself in the coming years.
But even if the $0.99 Kindle ebook is here to stay, authors can adapt to this fact by packaging their writing differently, e.g. serializing a novel, etc.
According to critics you can’t lower prices if you start out at $0.99. Then again, the threshold to click “buy” is very low, as well. And whether 1 or 10000 copies are sold, you don’t have any extra hassle.
4. Global Audience
The blog you are reading right now is written in English. Chances are that English isn’t your mother-tongue. Neither is it mine, but you might have intuited that already.
And yet, I decided to primarily write and publish online in English because it allows me to reach a lot more people. I’m aware that not everyone will be willing to do this, but I can’t rely on other people translating my German for a wider audience, so I write in English from the start.
As an indie-publisher you have tons of responsibilities:
From choosing the right font-size to making sure your ebook comes out right on a Kindle Screen or PDF, you are your own design and layout department.
Also, it’s up to you to connect to (or create) an audience, stay in touch with readers and make sure everything is working.
As Seth Godin once wrote:
the [independent] author is the ringleader, cheerleader, ringmaster, organizer and jack of all trades of a process that might not ever end.
If something goes wrong, there’s only one person to blame: You.
On the other hand, you have complete control over everything from the first word of your book to its price, cover and in what formats it’s going to be available.
It’s a long and difficult process covering many areas of expertise outside of the actual writing. If we compare this approach to the conventional way of working with a publisher, they are not even in the same ballpark. But the way we think about books is changing, as well. So it’s only natural that the publishing process will change, too, isn’t it?
According to the Economist, even IKEA is already changing its popular BILLY bookcase, preparing for a future in which bookcases will be filled by anything but books.
The firm reckons customers will increasingly use [bookcases] for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome
What are your experiences with independent publishing? Share your story in the comments!
img: Some rights reserved by Sumlin