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Adventures in Self-Publishing


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I’ve been self-publishing novels for a little more than ten years. I’ve had some successes–for example, I’ve won the Writer’s Digest National Self-Published Book competition and I’ve sold more than 6,000 copies of my books. But I’m not a self-publishing rock star and I still dream of doing much better.

Here’s an essay on some things I’ve learned in ten years of doing this. Other versions of this essay appear elsewhere on the net, most recently on my site wetmachine.com, from whence you can download versions of my books for free if you feel like checking ‘em out.

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.

The 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 6.5k 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 under Creative Commons license for download from Wetmachine (no DRM, no registration required), 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 6,500 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. And actually, the fact that I was able to raise $8,000 for Creation Science, mostly from fans who had read my other books, shows that I’ve already connected pretty meaningfully with an audience.

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:

  • emotional
  • financial
  • political
  • artistic/pragmatic
  • experiential
  • 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. He took a very risky gamble. And now he’s worth a hundred million bucks & he 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 had 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:

  • 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).

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.”

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 marketing model that has made publishing titans 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 those 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. I like being 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 first novel 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. Overnight my Amazon ranking went from 940,000 to 64. For a few hours, at least, I *did* outsell Clancy and Crichton and King. 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 for Salon.com wrote a very nice article about me called Hacking the Overmind. 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. . . Soon I was getting book orders from Sydney and Melbourne.

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 (not the editor with whom I had spoken in’97) 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:

  • 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 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.

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.

But I do a lousy job tracking my expenses, following up on invoices (bookstores still owe me about $500 in unpaid invoices from ten years ago), 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 and pay that. I suspect that I am 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:

  1. Manufacturing & logistics. Publishers get the books printed & warehoused & shipped.
  2. 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.
  3. Advances. Publishers pay advances, sometimes big advances, to keep writers financially solvent while they write their books.

Things of theoretical value that publishers provide to writers:

  1. Editorial support & guidance.
  2. Marketing.
  3. 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. Using the website Kickstarter, I raised an $8,000 advance from the internets for my next book Creation Science. That’s not a whole lot–that is, it’s not enough to live on long enough to write a book– but it’s a good start. And it came quickly with relatively 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 raised that $8,000 in 30 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.

5) Marketing.

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.

My biggest mistake so far

The biggest mistake I’ve made in ten years of self-publishing is not developing a more organized way to stay in touch with readers who like my books. I did start a Yahoo Group several years back. It was called Futurefear, and its stated purpose was

A group started by John FX Sundman to discuss, mainly, his hare-brained and ill-considered attempts to market his nanoscopically famous technoparanoid thriller “Acts of the Apostles.”
We welcome anybody who’s willing to help me spread the word, or offer advice on how I might better do so.
Also we may discuss, from time to time, related topics, such as technoparanoia, DEC’s Mill, Silicon Valley Kulturekampf, Frank Zappa, the Human Genome Project, NeoLuddism,
grunge-punk music, self-publishing in general, why the Red Sox are supperior to the Yankees, Cheap Complex Devices, etc.

For a short while the group was a lively discussion site among 80 or so people. I let it fall into disuse, however, as I ramped up my involvement with my site Wetmachine, which I intended to be a new and better and vastly more popular discussion site than Futurefear. But it never happened. Wetmachine has been wildly successful in a number of ways, but not as a gathering place & discussion site for fans of my books. With Futurefear lying fallow, no such place exists. I don’t even have a facebook fan site.

For a about 5 years I was active on Kuro5hin, and many of that site’s members became fans of my books, so I stayed in touch with them there. But for various reasons, that site morphed into something totally different than it had been, and I’ve effectively left it. For about the last six years I’ve kept a diary & become friends with hundreds of people, many of whom have purchased my books, at a site called HuSi. But that’s not my site, and I have to avoid spamming & alienating my friends there.

And as a result, when I have an announcement to make, I wind up spending days–or longer — crafting individual email notes to people I’ve sold books to or corresponded with in the past. And lots of these notes bounce, because email addresses go stale. Twenty thousand people have downloaded by books, and I have no idea who any of them are, because I never got around to putting up a page that said, “hey, would you like to sign up for my newsletter?” I don’t even *have* a newsletter.

Many authors do a much, much better job at this than I do, and I need to learn from them and do the hard work of getting myself organized to stay & touch with friends & fans.

Ebooks

My book The Pains has been available in Kindle format through Amazon for half a year now. I’ve sold a few dozen copies. Recently I ported Acts of the Apostles to Smashwords and the book is available in Kindle, Epub, and a few other formats. Soon, as I understand the process, it will be available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and several other channels. I’ll let you know how it does.

In Conclusion

Teh internets & people like me are transforming the book publishing biz. 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.

About John Sundman

Avatar of John Sundman
I have self-published three cyberpunkish novels since 1999 -- Acts of the Apostles, Cheap Complex Devices, and The Pains -- all of which are available in one form or another for free download under creative commons license. I've sold about 6,000 printed books, and the free versions have been downloaded 20k+ times. I've recently also made various other ebook versions of my books available for sale -- so my free books are competing with my for-sale books in both print and electronic form. Hoping to share with y'all a few lessons I've learned, and also, of course, to learn from the community.

19 comments

  1. This was an AMAZING post.

    On the reasons not to self-publish, you can avoid a lot of that expense and distribution headache if you just publish in ebook and print-on-demand through lightning source. Aaron Shepard outlines a way for self-publishers to make money using Amazon as a primary strategy with POD through Lightning Source. You’ll make a lot more money for a lot less headache.

    I won’t tour or travel for my books. I just won’t. My audience is on the internet. I’ll find them on the internet. I’ll interact with them on the internet, and I’ll sell to them through the internet. I don’t like big crowds and I don’t like to travel. I’m a homebody.

    As for the bookkeeping issue, I’m probably like a space alien but I love bookkeeping. I think profit and loss statements are sexy. I know every penny going in and going out. I’m quite anal about it.

    I agree with you that self-publishing is a great adventure and I’m very proud to be doing it. Yes, some people will be tards about it with regards to the stigma issue, but what can you do?

    I’m glad every day I decided to self-publish. I think I’d be miserable with a corporate publisher.

    Also, I laughed so hard I drooled a little (I know, very attractive), when you said: “I’ll make it as stupid as you want!” hahahahaha

  2. Avatar of John Sundman

    Zoe,

    Thanks. I definitely will look into POD for my next book. Ten years ago, when I first started doing this, the costs of offset printing were so much lower, and the quality so much higher, than POD books that it was an easy choice for me to purchase mass quantities of traditionally-printed & bound books. But POD quality is catching up, and costs have come down.

    My father is a finance guy, spent his professional life as Chief Financial Officer for this or that corporation. Can balance ledgers in his head. Like you, he knows every penny in or out. I think I must have gotten the recessive gene (Mom, what was that I heard about you and the milkman?? (oh, right. We had a cow. My father *was* the milkman. . . )

    Although most of my audience is “on the internet”, I’ve found that occasional forays out into “the real world” have been invaluable. I only go to places where geeks (computer geeks and biology geeks) congregate — such as trade shows & conference — and only when I can get a table (from which to sell my books) for very cheap — or free. On a typical day at such an event my expenses will be $100, sales will be $1,000, and I’ll get two or three people who will blog about me or write a review somewhere.

    I do keep hoping that I’ll hit the bigtime as a self-publisher — at which point I’ll hire an accountant to take care of my records & taxes. Wouldn’t that be a happy thing!

    I’ve checked out your site, by the way. Very classy. I wish you all good success.

    jrs

  3. Avatar of Vincent Eaton

    I thought long and hard about all this before launching my indie pub company. I’ve worked in communications, I know how. But the internet just didn’t seem, nor did I want it to be, to be that kind of place.

    So, after a few months, using my blog and different social media, I stick to storytelling.

    Monday, give, for free, a podcast of something I’ve written.
    Wednesday, give, for free, a short video on a book or something relating to a story, or something to do with writing, but no how-to.
    Friday, a free flash fiction free story (or, when launching a book, a series of chapters.

    Stories. Not promo. Always linking and inviting to pub site, but no hard sell.

    What works, really, on the Internet is: produce something of quality, let people know about it, repeat.

  4. Hey John,

    Yeah I just don’t like crowds or travel. It’s not that I think it’s impossible to do well that way if you’re niche targeting like you are.

    And thanks on the site! I put it together myself using the flash templates on Wix. It was ridiculously easy to set up and makes me look like a better designer than I am, haha. And of course the cover art was provided by my awesome cover artist.

    Vincent,

    I mostly just talk on the internet. I’ll announce if I’ve got something to announce, but I don’t announce repeatedly. I don’t spam my facebook friends, I just don’t do it. I do a podcast, and a blog, and I’m just “me” on the internet. People who like “me” are often curious about my fiction. That leads them to my free novella. If they like that, they’ll be able to purchase more very soon.

    I’m also working on recording a podcast for the new release coming out. I’ll always offer a free podcast of the fiction, as well as sample chapters in print, but I don’t have time to devote to flash fiction or other short stories. I’d rather work on that which I can sell. Personal preference. Also I just really don’t like writing short stories and flash fiction.

    But I think your strategy is great and it’s FAR better to do that than to tweet every other day: “Hey, go buy my book!”

  5. Avatar of Steve Anderson

    Wow, massively epic, dare I say “Konrath-esque” post here. I mean that in the best way. And the comments are so helpful too. Getting one of my books to print is the next step for me, and I value all the knowledge you’re sharing. The print journey was seeming like a blind crawl through a live volcano compared to doing ebooks. Not as much now. Thanks, all.

  6. Avatar of Vincent Eaton

    Zoe– Thanks for taking the time to reply to my remarks. We are all different writers with different levels of interest in different storytelling forms. When I went on about what and how I’m doing it, I was merely saying, here’s my way, what works for me, doing what I naturally do. Everyone finds their level or comfort and creativity, and then, one hopes, will be found by those who like what you’re doing, how you’re saying, what you’re saying it.

  7. Hey Vincent,

    I totally “get” you. I hope you didn’t feel I thought you were saying everybody had to do things a certain way. haha, isn’t communication on the Interwebz fun?

  8. Avatar of Vincent Eaton

    Zoe, I think it’s all about finding our own ways, and since this is relatively new, just exchanging what works, what doesn’t, helps focus one’s own efforts and gives other ideas for consideration. I didn’t take what you said in any way than that. This can be a blunt instrument, comments….

  9. Tremendously insightful post – thank you for the effort it took to shre so much information and experience. I will add only that I’ve been to the Tufte class and he does tell attendees essentially what you relate: that no publisher would produce his books as he envisioned them – in terms of layout, design, quality, etc. I’ve got all his books, and each one is a masterpiece of publishing quality.

  10. The first comment regarding independent authors’ wonderful publishing resource books is the best. In 2010, it shouldn’t be so hard to find a publisher, but sadly the reality seems to be the opposite way.

  11. Avatar of Steven M. Moore

    After getting the run-around from agents and traditional publishers (several readings of full manuscripts), I decided that I didn’t want to die before publishing my first book. I went the POD route. My first experiment was with Xlibris where they shafted me on a worthless marketing package that probably made me famous as one of the world’s worst spammers. Infinity, the publisher of my next two novels, was a pleasant change. Complete control over the pub process and they even get into some bookstores. Like Zoe, I also have trouble with public appearances, so I rely on my website and blog to attract an audience.

  12. Zoe, I think it’s all about finding our own ways, and since this is relatively new, just exchanging what works, doesn’t, helps one focus one’s own efforts and gives other ideas for consideration.

  13. @book publisher, Absolutely!

  14. This post is amazing!

    As I await the proof copy of my first book, “Everything I Need to Know About Motherhood I Learned from Animal House,” I’ve been scouring the web for a serious affirmation of what I’ve set myself up for.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for reassuring me and putting into words what I intuitively feel about my choice.

  15. Hi John, thanks for an excellent article. “Acts of Apostles” sounded intriguing – went to Amazon to check out the Kindle version, only to discover that… there is no Kindle version! It turns out I have to register on smashwords and download it from there.. That’s a whole bunch of extra unnecessary friction that stands between your bank account and Kindle owners’ credit cards (for example, I buy most of my books directly through Kindle without downloading them to computer first, which prevents me from seeing books that are listed via third party sites like smashwords). http://dtp.amazon.com is your friend.

    Bottom line: If your audience is the techie crowd, make it easy for them to consume your product in their medium of choice: kindles, ipads etc etc. Smashwords might be an intermediary that takes care of certain aspects of digital distribution, but it’s not perfect. It would be great to see your book listed when you search for “acts of apostles” on Amazon’s Kindle store.

  16. Avatar of John Sundman

    Peter,

    Thanks. When I signed up with Smashwords, they indicated that my book would be available in “all channels” within a few weeks. That was a few months ago, and it’s not on Amazon yet, for “technical reasons” — although it is on BN.com, the Apple store, etc. I haven’t decided whether or not to do Amazon separately.

    I did do a version of Acts using Apple’s DTP tools, going dirctly from PDF to .MOBI and it came out pretty lousy, so I didn’t put it up for sale. After taking all the time to clean up the sources to put through the Smashwords meatgrinder I’m confident that the Kindle version from smashwords will be clean — but how long will it take to show up there? Who knows? I’ll probably give it another week or so, and if it doesn’t show up on Amazon by then, I’ll withdraw Acts from Amazon distribution and go back to the DTP approach.

    I do have a Kindle version of The Pains available, but frankly I’m not all that happy with it. The Pains relies a lot on its typography and book design (as does Cheap Complex Devices). So I’m kind of reluctant to put a version out there that loses all that info. I do have an iPad version of The Pains in the works, but I’m not sure how long it will take to finish it. . .

    On the one hand, I don’t want to create all kinds of different processes for the different channels and formats; it’s nice that Smashwords takes care of so much of that. On the other hand, I certainly would like to make more money!

    Thanks for your feedback; it’s helpful.

  17. John, right after I posted the comment, I searched for your other novels on Kindle and came across The Pains, which is excellent! (pressed the Buy button after ingesting the sample in a matter of minutes.. I’m now almost half way into the book I think)

    The typography and design question is certainly a very important one, and hopefully iPad-like devices will provide enough fertile ground for creative authors such as yourself… As much we all like paper, nobody can uninvent the iPad :)

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