Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Self-Publishing Choice

I am writing this in anticipation of my proof copy for my debut novel, Dark Mountain.  Over the next week or so I plan on writing some blog entries that cover some aspects of self publishing: formatting, choosing a POD publisher, marketing, Amazon, pricing, making a book trailer, designing a cover, making a website and branding.  Today, though, I thought it best to start at WHY I decided to self-publish in the first place.

To truly understand this decision, I have to first establish my love for writing.  I knew at the age of 12 that I would someday be a writer.  I loved books and when I wrote my first story (a sort of "Children of the Corn" knock-off), it was for an Eighth Grade English class.  I really liked my teacher, and so when she gave us a writing assignment, I really wanted to impress her.  So, having some drawing skills, I took some art paper and made a scary cover with blood dripping from the words and stapled my hand-written story inside.  I even embellished the back cover with blurbs and fake reviews.  Needless to say, she was duly impressed and gave me some very positive feedback.  I never looked back on that dream that began that day on the second floor of Weston Junior High School. 

In college, I eventually got my English degree (after flirting with Pulpit Ministry, Computer Programming, Teaching English, Teaching English as a Foreign Language and Library Science).  I knew to be a writer that all the Creative Writing courses I could take would never really advance me in my career.  They were helpful, for sure, but I wasn't prepared to live on the income of a starving writer.  I'm still not and so I have a real job in addition to writing.  I wasn't attracted to the stodginess of journalism and even though I have a salesman heart (that's what I do now), I didn't want to move to Chicago, New York, Miami or Los Angeles to work for an ad agency or marketing company.

So, I took classes, read books, researched online, and wrote as much as I could discipline myself to do with a young family and the demands of life. In other words, I produced nothing because I felt I had an excuse.  I lamented my diminishing skills (they were actually getting better), my lot in life (I have, for the most part, always moved forward), and dwelt in the Land of Pity and Self-Loathing for almost a decade.

Then, something awoke in me.  I began keeping a writer's notebook.  I began and stopped several books (some of which I plan on finishing).  I tried to get published.  I wrote articles for a homeschool publication in our state.  I wrote and produced a newsletter for our homeschool support group.  I kept honing my skills.  I kept reading literature. 

Then, about eight years ago, I got more serious. I subscribed to writer's groups, critique groups and searched for ways to expand my writing.  Eventually, I began to call myself a writer.  I let that define me and even started a blog, wrote some short stories and published them on Smashwords for free.  I subscribed to industry blogs and kept up with the publishing industry on a daily basis.  I researched agents (that was new to me:  early in my writing I had been sending to slush piles, but all that had changed). 

Then, in 2009, with several novels started, a bunch of notes for others and ideas swirling in my head, I discovered NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.  It is in November and it challenges aspiring writers to write 50,000 words in 30 days.  It is an accomplishment, to be sure.  I participated and actually succeeded in my first attempt.  The result was mediocre.  I recognize good stories.  Dark Mountain Mean was just ok.  I put it aside, began a more ambitious novel that required massive research and kept me up at night with excitement. 

Meanwhile, Dark Mountain Mean languished on my computer, stewed for almost a year.  I pulled it back out in 2010 when I was unable to get my NaNoWriMo off the ground.  My fantasy project flopped about halfway through and I knew I wouldn't make it.  So, I picked Dark Mountain Mean back up and began the daunting task of writing the final 25,000 words and editing the mostly crappy first 50,000.   Tracey, my wife, agreed to read it while I edited the first part and finished the last part.  She actually pushed me.  She finished the first part and begged me to continue writing.  She was interested in reading about how it ended.  Her excitement lit a fire under me. 

I now knew--KNEW--I could write well.  I was finally beginning to think I was publishable AND had the discipline to finish.  But, even after completing the first draft, I knew I wasn't finished.  I began the second edit with my wife's notes in hand.  I fixed inconsistencies, bad story arcs, some spotty grammar, some sketchy moral fallacies and that took a year.

Eager to get some more positive feedback--Tracey's excitement was contagious, but she is my WIFE--I asked some folks if they would interested in reading it.  My college-bound son, Nate, and a friend from church volunteered.  Another year went by.  I began to query agents while I waited for more feedback.  I got several rejections. 

All this time I was waiting, watching.  I was a Team Big 6 proponent.  I had read (and participated a little) in self-publishing.  I was immensely disappointed in the quality of the writing.  It went beyond the bad grammar, poor formatting, amateur cover art and poor premises.  The story-telling was awful.  Just dreadful.  I am no high-brow reader, even though I can recognize the difference between Henry James and John Grisham.  I am an eclectic reader, perhaps the most widely read person I know:  everything from Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Camus to Star Wars, Forgotten Realms and Magic the Gathering. I read Stephen Covey, CS Lewis and Larry Burkett as well as biographies on Jim Brown, business books, sales training books, and motivational and devotional books.

The simple fact is:  most self-published books were sub-par.  They thankfully didn't charge much and often were free, but even that sometimes didn't make up for the poor writing.  But, I digress.

The point is, I was firmly NOT in the self-pubbing camp.  I wanted an editor. I wanted an agent.  I wanted the clap on the back that comes from acceptance into this community.  But, the longer I researched the publishing industry, I realized that the timing, the money and the hassle weren't really what I was expecting.  Agents, other writers, and  publishing professionals laud the experience as worth it, as all part of the "way things are."  The longer I listened to that, the more it sounded hollow.  I saw the same lack of editorial care with traditionally published books, I saw the hackneyed titles and regurgitated plots. 

The longer I listened, the more Amazon and Lulu and CreateSpace and Smashwords, even, looked more logical.  At least, to me.  I had made a timid attempt at getting represented.  I struggled with my query letter.  It doesn't do my story justice.  I felt rejected, because I was.

One day, I made the decision.  I knew I wouldn't go back.  Although, I might.  If offered, I would accept.  But, I want them to come calling to me, not the other way around.  I will self-publish even if it means the only people who buy my book are people I know.  I don't want to do it for any other reason other than it is my dream and I refuse to let it die.

I can't wait for the proof copy.  I already know I will have to do some more work on the cover.  In fact, I have already uploaded a new cover and edited the interior again (the 5th time).  I have about 50% of the marketing in place (website, Amazon Kindle Select, social media) and about a dozen people lined up ready to make a purchase or a download.

I am already satisfied.  To me, that little feedback from people who haven't even read my book yet sustains me.  It's like I am in Eighth Grade all over again.