At some level, I think I always knew that I would write. I had written poems, short-stories and even the occasional “whodunit” in my high school years. And yes, I confess, I was many an English teacher’s, ahem, favorite pupil. But little did I know that inspiration would strike deep roots when I was longer in the tooth and those streaks of silver had started colonizing the mop on my noggin. Strange are the ways ……oh well.
So, I fired up my computer one fine summer morning and started typing away. Yes – I didn’t write an outline, do character sketches – none of that. I just let my fingers transcribe the idea pacing my brain. A few months into it, the wife pointed me to a nifty little tool for writers – Scrivener. I will save the details about Scrivener for another post – but suffice to say I absolutely loved it and on hindsight don’t know how I did any writing without it. But the one thing that I will mention though – alongside the writing, I did a lot of research – blogs written by other self-published authors, about literary agents, publishers who struck gold with a new author and so on. I was able to save all this research, even the research I did for my story, in a handy little “research” section on Scrivener. Fast forward…34 months since I started on my book, I was finally done. Done writing that is.
The real hard work only just started. I revisited all the research I had done – read and re-read opinions about self-publishing Vs the traditional route, devoured the success stories of many first-time authors and agonized over what was right for me and the genre of the magnum opus that I had created. Finally, I decided on a couple of things:
1. I absolutely needed to get my book edited
2. I will test the waters in the great roiling ocean of traditional publishing.
So, I spent many nights composing mails to publishers, literary agents, writing contests and so on. Most publishers and agents never responded (c’mon people – show a little more class – at least respond that you are not interested) – they play it safe by asking for a ridiculous amount of time to review and respond (“If you don’t hear back from us after 20 years, feel free to send us a gentle reminder…”) . The few who did respond turned me down in brief, tersely worded responses. I guess in my heart I knew the odds of a first-time writer being picked by a publishing house. So, in parallel, I hired an editor and a cover designer (found on elance.com). As the editor chipped away at my mangled sentences, dubious usage of conjunctions, prepositions & punctuation and outright misspells, the cover designer worked with me to understand the vision that I had for my cover. It took about five to six attempts before I finally had the cover design that I truly identified with. I finally was standing on the threshold of hitting the “publish” button.
Or, so I thought. Until I realized that the three sites that I wanted to publish on (Createspace for paperback version, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing for Kindle ebook version and Smashwords for Barnes & Noble nook, Apple iBooks, Flipkart India and others), each required a different format that would fit their template requirements. Once again, I had to rely on the community of self-published authors who gracefully shared their experience on their blogs and each one had a different experience to narrate. By following the instructions for Kindle’s emobi format and Smashwords’ epub format, I was finally able to get both uploaded (Scrivener came in really handy here). Each site takes a few hours to a couple of days to vet your submission and make it available for sale once it is approved. Now, for the paperback version on Amazon’s Createspace, I realized that I was in over my head trying to format it myself. After trying to tool around with it for a bit, I decided that the quickest and most efficient way to do it is to hire someone who does this for a living. So, back to elance.com I trudged and worked with a specialist for the createspace format. When the work was done (took about a week), I found that she provided all the formats I needed including emobi and epub. Nevertheless, it was a good experience doing-it-myself…no, really, I mean it.
A couple of decisions that I had to make:
1. The ISBN – the unique number to identify my book. Smashwords, CreateSpace and Kindle all offer the choice of “free ISBN”, the only caveat being that you cannot re-use this ISBN should you also publish your book on other platforms. So, my book has different ISBNs on each site. I thought about this and decided that it is best to have my own ISBN so that I could have the freedom of re-using it should I choose to, say, self-publish a paperback version in India. (CreateSpace paperback version is available only in the US & UK). There is an option to buy an ISBN though Amazon, but it turned out that only residents of the USA are eligible for that. So, I went with the free option and in parallel decided to get an ISBN in India. They are free! Before you rejoice, let me tell you that this is strangely and annoyingly controlled by the government. You have to write to this obscure institute called “Raja Ram Mohan Roy National Agency for ISBN” and hope they respond. They accept only paper forms sent via snail mail (no emails, faxes or even couriers – god forbid that it reach them quickly!). And after that, there is no way to find out if your request reached them, are they going to process it, when they will send the ISBN to you…it is all one giant bureaucratic black box. I am still waiting by the way – 6 months and counting. I even wrote to our hon’ble HRD minister after the new government was ushered in. No cigar.
2. The other choice you have to make is the “Kindle Select” program. Here you are basically publishing exclusively on Amazon for a minimum of 90 days with some added benefits like being able to run a $0 promotion for your book and so on. I thought about this and went “gee. I will lose out on all those hundreds of people using other eBook platforms like Nook, iBooks and so on.” So, I decided not to choose the Kindle select program. In the end, I don’t think it made a difference. I have sold – zip, nada, not-a-one, on all the wonderful choices offered by Smashwords. All my modest sales have only been on Amazon. And when I say modest, I am being severely generous!
So, there you have it. My book is available on Amazon, Flipkart, B&N, iBooks and many other platforms (if you publish on Amazon CreateSpace and Amazon KDP – they automatically link it to a single page for your book). I even have some decent reviews posted by readers (ok, I admit, many of them – not all – are friends and family).
It is important to set aside a budget for:
1. Editing (no compromises on this one – it is better to not publish at all, than publish a self-edited book)
2. Cover design (remember, most people judge a book by its cover – yes, despite the warning from the adage)
3. Formatting (optional – but you need to be seriously patient if you plan to do this yourself – I mean like ice-in-your-veins patient)
4. Purchasing author copies. (Despite what you say to yourself, you will want to touch and feel your book on paper and the only way to do that is to order author copies from Amazon. They charge $5 or so per copy, but they get you with the shipping.)
5. Marketing. (This is big. There is no limit on how much you can spend on this – except affordability. I tried advertising on Goodreads with underwhelming results ; book reviews on Blogadda with decent results. Not sure if I will spend anymore at this time.)
Free things to try:
1. Create a blog (review others books, write about your own experiences and so on.. kinda like what I am doing here. Heh. heh)
2. Create a FB page (get all your friends, family, their neighbors and their grandparents to like it)
3. Create a twiiter account (tweet constantly – support your fellow authors).
4. Sign up with indie author sites like TheIndieView.com, TheTalesPensieve.com – there are many others to explore too. These guys perform a wonderful service and help you with some free publicity like author interviews.
Bottomline: Self-publishing is a great way to start and retain a lot of freedom on how you publish your work. I am sure traditional publishing has its benefits too, but one thing is certain – neither has an assured route for success. It depends on many things – the content of your book being the most important, the marketing strategy you adopt, who you know (yes – this matters. Imagine if a national newspaper reviews your book in their Sunday section because your sister-in-law works for that paper) and a whole lot of luck (or blessings from Up there). Me personally, I have treated my first foray as a great learning experience. It is extremely satisfying to get a sudden message in the night from a neighbor or friend that says “I can’t put your book down. This is awesome!”. The one feedback I constantly get is the lack of a paperback version in India. That’s the part I am looking to explore next.
A few references that I found useful: